Politicians so rarely do the right thing that to question their motives when they do seems defeatist.
So, whatever his rationale, I had some tentative hope at the end of 2017 and start of 2018 that Donald Trump would do the right thing on North Korea. While his speech to Seoul’s National Assembly in November 2017 was mostly lauded for its praise of South Korea and their success in modernizing, as well as his relative restraint in threatening North Korea, Trump also used his speech to highlight the North’s mistreatment of its own citizens. His State of the Union address the following January highlighted not only the Warmbier family, who lost their son Otto to the North’s predations, but also North Koreans who risked life and health to escape.
Then, in February 2018, Trump met with escapees from North Korea. After listening to their “amazing” stories, he was implored to do more to bring attention to their plight, especially the repatriation of defectors back to the North from China.
North Korea’s crimes against humanity have been documented extensively by human rights advocates such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. And yet, such aggression against the rights, dignity and even the lives of North Korean citizenry consistently take a back seat to the threat posed by its nuclear and missile programs.
The closest a human rights agenda has ever come to centrality in discussion on North Korea took place in the latter half of the 2014, following the release of the report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK. The report cataloged the state’s sustained assault on freedoms of speech, religion and association, the routine sexual violence – particularly against women in its prison camps – and the government’s role in exacerbating the catastrophic famine of the 1990s. Its panel explicitly compared North Korea’s atrocities to the Holocaust. One member even suggested that the regime’s very nature was incompatible with human rights reform.
This led, later in the year, to resolutions at the UN General Assembly and Security Council condemning these abuses. While Russia and China prevented actual punitive measures at the UNSC, the UNGA ultimately adapted the resolution after dozens of countries co-sponsored it.
More than five years removed from those votes, a pair of things stand out. One is how North Korea itself reacted to the news. While most observers saw China and Russia’s veto of the resolution at the UNSC as inevitable, Pyongyang appeared rattled by the proceedings, launching unhinged and personalized attacks on members of the panel and world leaders supportive of the resolution. It attempted to articulate an alternative vision of human rights, and attempted to discredit defectors who served as witnesses (with mixed results).
Along the way, they revealed that the attacks on the “dignity of the Supreme Leadership” were uniquely difficult to bear.
Secondly was how quickly a pair of engagement-minded leaders, former presidents Barack Obama and Park Geun-hye, embraced the resolution. Both had been elected promising a different (i.e. warmer) relationship with the North following a deterioration of ties under their predecessors. Both had reached out to Pyongyang with proposals – Park’s were (crudely) rejected out of hand; at least one of Obama’s was embraced in 2012, only to have its spirit violated shortly thereafter.
Obama and Park’s embrace of the human rights agenda for North Korea, late and half-hearted as it was, was the right thing to do. That they probably did so for the wrong reasons – diplomacy had gone nowhere, and they appeared unsure of their next move – matters little in the end.
Except as a contrast to the actions of their predecessors. Moon Jae-in has shown no interest, and instead focused on an agenda of inter-Korean reconciliation. To the extent that he has shown an interest in a human rights agenda, it’s in those of Koreans victimized by Japan decades ago.
As for Trump, the exceedingly brief period between the end of 2017 and start of 2018 represents the totality of his engagement with the issue. He has convinced himself of his unique ability to strike a deal and rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons, which is a dilemma a generation of American diplomats failed to resolve before him. There is a reason for that: North Korea knows what its US and South Korean interlocutors do not – neither peaceful unification nor peaceful coexistence with democratic South Korea is possible while Pyongyang exercises the right to violate its subjects’ human rights at will.
As long as neither of those things are possible, North Korea will defend itself with nuclear weapons. This realization does not mean ruling out negotiations, and it does not mean opening the door to war for regime change. It only means doing the right thing – giving a voice to escapees, supplying those in the country information, providing a means of escape, and working with the international community to speak with one voice on the subject.
Since Washington seeks to avoid both war and the recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status, avoiding human rights means perpetual stalemate.
Rob York is director for regional affairs at the Pacific Forum in Honolulu, Hawaii, and a former production editor at the South China Morning Post. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Korean history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
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