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Will raising human rights issues really derail nuclear negotiations with North Korea?

- June 27, 2018
President Trump makes a statement before saying goodbye to North Korea leader Kim Jong Un after their meetings in Singapore on June 12. Trump focused his recent summit with Kim on eliminating the regime’s nuclear weapons. (Susan Walsh/AP Photo)

President Trump in recent months talked about the “cruel dictatorship” of the North Korean regime, echoing other statements critical of North Korea’s record on human rights. That was at January’s State of the Union address.

But Trump gave the issue short shrift during his recent meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — and explained to reporters that he wanted to “have a good relationship with North Korea.” In other media interviews, Trump appeared to downplay the regime’s atrocities, and instead praised Kim as a leader with a “great personality,” loved by his people.

Why human rights are often ignored in nuclear talks

When it comes to nuclear security, leaders may put human rights as a lower priority, for pragmatic reasons. Raising concerns about human rights can complicate negotiations and jeopardize the prospects of a nuclear deal. This approach means leaders sideline human rights to be discussed at a later stage, or as a separate issue.

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The recent meetings with North Korea have been no different. During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) warned that raising human rights abuses would set the summit up for failure. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has also treaded lightly over human rights out of fear that criticizing the North Korean regime might jeopardize inter-Korean relations.

Understanding three human rights strategies for North Korea

As we argue in a new book, the North Korean human rights advocacy network comprises a number of diverse actors with different strategies for bringing about improved human rights. Here are three strategies human rights advocates use to promote human rights in North Korea:

1) Pursuing legal and institutional channels for change

Policymakers and activists utilize legal and institutional means, including diplomacy and sanctions to pressure and persuade the regime to comply with international human rights standards. North Korea has acknowledged these standards, as a signatory to four major international human rights treaties, including the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

For example, the establishment of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry (COI) in 2013 brought significant international attention to North Korea’s human rights violations. The findings outlined by the Commission’s report became the basis for referring North Korean leaders to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The passage of North Korean human rights legislation in the U.S. Congress in 2004 (and reauthorization in subsequent years) has also given human rights advocates a broader platform to address rights violations.

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The North Korean regime has strong incentives to avoid the ICC and would like to see the end of U.S. sanctions, including those tied specifically to human rights abuses. This narrow set of interests may make the regime more open to discussing human rights than past and present U.S. negotiators assumed.

By making some concessions on the human rights front and putting these issues on the negotiating table, the North Korean regime can also signal greater credibility with regard to denuclearization.

2) Launching information warfare and rescue missions

Perhaps the greatest threat to North Korea comes from groups who seek to bring about human rights change through subversive methods. Grass-roots organizations outside North Korea lead this effort, taking a direct, on-the-ground approach by sending outside information into the closed country or rescuing and supporting defectors.

Defector organizations smuggle USB flash drives, SD cards and DVDs downloaded with South Korean dramas, Hollywood films and new documentaries to bring outside information into the country. Other groups launch helium balloons across the demilitarized zone to distribute leaflets or Bible verses — or broadcast foreign news over shortwave radio, providing outside news in real time to North Koreans.

Although these “hostile acts” are driven mostly by defectors and activists, some groups do receive funding from U.S. government sources. In fact, Pyongyang negotiators may ask the United States to cut funding for defector groups, which would then link human rights issues to the denuclearization effort.

3) Promoting social and economic rights through humanitarian means

A third strategy focuses more broadly on social and economic rights, including the right to food, shelter and health care. Although humanitarian concerns are often treated as distinct from human rights, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry Report explicitly includes “the right to food and related aspects of the right to life,” as a core aspect of North Korean human rights.

If the goal of universal human rights is to free the oppressed from bondage and improve the lives of ordinary people, then many humanitarian and development initiatives, from the delivery of tuberculosis vaccinations or construction of greenhouses, help achieve that goal, albeit on a small scale.

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The focus on social and economic rights conforms closely to North Korea’s own discourse on human rights. Although not always construed as human rights, addressing humanitarian needs such as children’s access to food and nutrition, or improvement in access to health care, may be compatible with Kim’s own domestic objectives.

Elevating human rights with nuclear discussions

The idea that North Koreans are less likely to engage in nuclear talks if human rights are raised in these discussions seems intuitive. However, the first and third scenarios suggest there may be a potential diplomatic path for raising human rights issues with North Koreans in future nuclear negotiations.

North Korea has long had a poor record on human rights — and long been condemned by the international community for its human rights record. But this censure, as the June 12 summit just showed, has not altogether deterred North Korea from coming to the negotiating table when its own interests are at stake.

Andrew Yeo is an associate professor of politics at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and co-editor of North Korean Human Rights: Activists and Networks. 

Danielle Chubb is a senior lecturer in international relations at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia and co-editor of North Korean Human Rights: Activists and Networks. Follow her on Twitter @danielle_chb.