With less than a month to go before the June 12th summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, the Trump administration is grappling with whether and how to address the Kim regime’s horrific and well-documented human rights abuses in a negotiation primarily focused on denuclearization. A nuclear-free North Korea would be an undeniable good for the world, and negotiators should forcefully push for a deal that would permanently and verifiably end North Korea’s ability to threaten its neighbors and the world with nuclear weapons. But at the very least, the United States will have to make clear that it cannot trade away sanctions related to human rights abuses when no improvements have been made in the treatment of everyday North Koreans. North Korea has warned that raising human rights concerns will threaten negotiations. In a way, the U.S. would be agreeing with this, saying to the Kim regime: When it comes to sanctions, we’re not here to talk about human rights either. Those sanctions are unrelated to your nuclear program, and they should remain. Indeed, by law, they must.
With the public focus on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, it can be difficult to keep in mind the scale and severity of human rights abuses taking place in North Korea. After exhaustive interviews with defectors and experts in numerous rounds of public testimony, the 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) concluded that “the gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” In other words, in 2014, North Korea was the worst place on Earth. Among the ongoing abuses the Commission identified were “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”
Some of the worst abuses take place in North Korea’s official and deadly system of political prison camps. As many as 120,000 men, women and children are believed to be currently detained. Decades of detention and even death can result for nothing more than possessing a USB drive containing South Korean TV shows or being perceived to be insufficiently deferential to a party official. Or, because North Korea has a formalized three generation guilt-by-association system, substantial numbers of people are detained simply for having the misfortune of being the child of or parent to someone who fled to South Korea in the 1960s or who was, or perceived to be, a Christian. The stories from the camps are beyond comprehension, where daily life is a battle to survive in the face of forced starvation, public executions, gruesome torture and sexual violence. Thomas Buergenthal, a distinguished American jurist who survived the Holocaust, declared after reviewing evidence of human rights abuses in North Korean prison camps that the conditions “are as terrible, or even worse, than those I saw and experienced in my youth in these Nazi camps and in my long professional career in the human rights field.”
As a matter of morality and national interest, the U.S. should raise North Korea’s human rights abuses during any conversations with the regime. It should be pushing North Korea to cooperate with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK and grant international observers access to all prison camps and other detention facilities. The U.S. should push North Korea to allow for free flow of information across borders, as well as cooperate with South Korea in facilitating family reunifications. In short, the U.S. should not stop pressing for North Korea to become a country that respects human rights and exists as a responsible member of the community of nations.
Not surprisingly, North Korea is desperate to avoid talking about human rights in any upcoming negotiations. Two weeks ago, the Korean Central News Agency issued a statement warning that the U.S. risked ruining the “hardly-won atmosphere of dialogue,” in part by “taking up [the] ‘human rights’ issue against the DPRK.” They employed similar rhetoric in the lead-up to the recent summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un, warning that raising human rights concerns would be “throwing a stone to the thin ice-like North-South relations.” But the comprehensive and interwoven sanctions regime enacted by the U.S. makes avoiding a discussion of human rights very challenging.
In response to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, its unparalleled abuse of its citizens, as well as other illicit activity such as money laundering and cyber threats, the U.S. enacted the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016—passed unanimously in the Senate and nearly unanimously in the House—requiring the president to levy tough sanctions against individuals or entities found to contribute to or be responsible for any of these activities. The Act recognizes that the North Korean state is built on a near complete denial of the rights of its citizens, organized and authorized by the same regime officials—including Kim Jong-un—who are responsible for the country’s nuclear program and other illicit activities. The criminal and abusive elements of the North Korean state are intrinsically interwoven; U.S. sanctions mirror that reality.
This was deliberate. The U.S. government must designate an individual or an entity for sanctions if it engages in activity related to the regime’s nuclear program, or if it engages in or authorizes human rights abuses. The sanctions cannot be disaggregated or separated, specifically to avoid a situation where negotiators might seek to trade away human rights sanctions in exchange for North Korea abandoning its nuclear weapons program. U.S. negotiators will have to explain that if North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons program, that will eliminate one basis for sanctions. If there are individuals or entities that have been sanctioned purely for activity related to the nuclear program, those sanctions could be suspended or lifted. But since the human rights atrocities persist, the exact same sanctions will continue on every individual or entity involved in those violations. Human rights abuses are endemic to the Kim regime, authorized and carried out at every level of government. This means the sanctions will have to stay.
As the Trump administration works through its negotiating strategy, it should recognize that human rights considerations are going to play a role. Either the U.S. is going to raise the issue independently and affirmatively, or it is going to have to discuss human rights abuses in the context of working through why most sanctions cannot be lifted. North Korea’s decision to release the three American prisoners was a welcome step in building good will, and Trump’s tweet regarding the release was correspondingly generous. But the human rights sanctions are not in place solely because North Korea regularly and ruthlessly detains Americans and other foreigners. They are based on the reality that North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, is the most brutal and repressive dictatorship in the world, and that that behavior cannot take place without a response from the U.S. When pushing for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, negotiators should have that fact squarely in mind.