Commentary, Human Rights

North Korean Human Rights and the Singapore Summit—a Goal or a Tool?

Only a week remains before the planned meeting in Singapore between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.  A good deal has been said about security issues that need to be raised, but not much has been said about if and how human rights issues might be raised at the summit.

There is no question that denuclearization is the key issue for discussion.  North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles are the most serious threat to peace and stability in Korea, Northeast Asia, and areas well beyond the Peninsula.  Clearly this issue must be given top priority.  But it would be a serious mistake to ignore human rights.  We need to press for a satisfactory resolution of the nuclear and missile issues, but we also need to push for progress on human rights.

For Kim Jong-un one of the principal benefits of a summit with the American president is bolstering his stature and legitimacy—internally, of course, but also internationally.  He seeks greater standing for himself and his rogue regime, particularly with Koreans in the South as he seeks reunification of the Korean Peninsula under his leadership.

North Korea’s legitimacy has been seriously undermined because of its appalling human rights record.  In 2014, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Human Rights documented horrific human rights abuses by Pyongyang, including the most serious “crimes against humanity.”  This provoked a fevered response from the North because it raised questions about the legitimacy of the state and its authoritarian leader.

It is important that the North Korea understand that the summit is not just a handshake with a smiling American president acknowledging that North Korea is a member of the nuclear weapons club.  Real international legitimacy must include North Korean acceptance and observance of international standards of behavior, and the observance of accepted human rights norms.  Raising the issue of human rights at the summit would make this clear to Kim Jong-un and to the North Korean people.  Acceptance of human rights norms is essential to legitimacy.  This has been a guiding principle of American foreign policy for well over the last century, and we have been a principal advocate for the observance of internationally accepted human rights.

Furthermore, respect for human rights is an important element in encouraging the evolution of the North Korea regime toward a government system that is more responsive to the needs of its own people.  A government whose citizens have fundamental democratic rights—freedom of speech; access to information; freedom of worship; personal security; legal rights to protect life, liberty and property; participation in democratic government—is a government that will give greater priority to the needs of its own citizens.

Making progress on human rights should be a goal of American engagement with the North.  Securing Pyongyang’s acknowledgement of its international human rights obligations should be a condition for the regime’s full legitimization.  Not all United Nations member states are fully compliant with their human rights obligations—and unfortunately this sometimes includes the United States.  But there is an international consensus that human rights are an international obligation.  This does not mean that human rights should torpedo engagement with the North which could lead to progress on denuclearization, but the issue needs to be raised at the summit.

Unfortunately, however, indications thus far are that President Trump sees human rights as a tool or an instrument to get Kim Jong-un to the summit, but not as a key objective of the meeting and of our policy toward the North.  The high points of the President’s record in personally raising North Korean human rights make this clear.

The first time the President raised human rights in connection with North Korea was in the case of American student Otto Warmbier, who was detained by North Korea in January 2016 and returned to the United States in June 2017 in a condition described by medical authorities as “unresponsive wakefulness.”  He died within a few days of his return.  The President harshly criticized North Korea because of its treatment of Otto Warmbier, but he did not engage in criticism of North Korea on the broader issue of human rights.

In the last half of 2017, President Trump focused on the long-range missile tests and the two nuclear tests by North Korea during his first year in office.  In August 2017, he threatened “fire and fury” against the North.  In his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, he referred to the North Korean leader “rocket man,” later using the more dismissive term “little rocket man.”  The North’s human rights record was not mentioned.

In early 2018, the President again shifted his line of attack and focused on human rights.  In January in his State of the Union Address to Congress, the President focused on North Korea’s human rights abuses:  “No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea,” and “We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies.”  In fact, over 10 percent of the State of the Union Speech was devoted to North Korea—a very significant amount of time in a speech reporting on the President’s first year in office and highlighting the major domestic and international issues facing the United States.

To highlight human rights abuses in the North, the President invited the parents, brother and sister of American citizen Otto Warmbier to the U.S. Capitol for the speech, and welcomed them in the speech as “powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world.”  The President also introduced a young defector from North Korea who had lost his leg in an effort to find food during the famine of the 1990s in North Korea.  His story of escaping the North was particularly compelling.  A few days after the State of the Union speech, the President hosted eight North Korean defectors for a meeting in the Oval Office, again highlighting brutal practices by the North against its own citizens.

The following month, Vice President Mike Pence represented the United States at the opening of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.  He was accompanied by Otto Warmbier’s father in continuing the campaign to call attention to North Korea’s human rights.

In retrospect, the criticism of Kim Jong-un and the focus on human rights appears to be more of an effort to harangue the North to encourage progress on U.S. citizens detained in the north, and it did not outlast the March 2018 surprise announcement of a U.S.-North Korea summit followed two months later by the release of three American citizens who had been detained in North Korea on questionable grounds for as long as two and a half years.

Once the summit invitation was accepted and the three detained American citizens were safely back on American soil, criticism of North Korea’s human rights record gave way to effusive praise of the “excellent” treatment of the three American prisoners by the North Koreans.  Past experience regarding the treatment of American detainees and photographs of some of these three which were published by North Korean media do not suggest that their treatment was anything like “excellent.”

Based on how the President has dealt with North Korea’s human rights issues during his first year and a half in office, human rights is not a goal or an objective of his foreign policy.  Human rights is simply a tool, an issue that can be used to pressure North Korea to take an action we seek.  Human rights are not treated as the end or the object of our policy but only as a means to achieve other goals when it might helpful.

Clearly the nuclear issue is the critical issue of this summit and the engagement process that follows it.  But human rights are important as well.  The President has already been walking back expectations for the summit.  He told journalists: “We’re moving along. . . . If it doesn’t happen, maybe it will happen later.  We will see, but we are talking.”  No more talk from National Security Advisor John Bolton about the necessity to follow the “Libya model” for immediate denuclearization.

The realism is welcome, but it does not require silence on human rights.  Just as a realistic approach toward nuclear progress does not mean only the Libya approach, raising the human rights issue does not require all-or-nothing in raising human rights issues.  In the first place, you don’t have to have an agenda item labeled “human rights.”  There are issues that lead in the right direction that can and should be raised.

For example, it is useful to increase contacts between North Korean citizens and the rest of the world.  North Korea is one of the most isolated and tightly controlled countries on the face of the earth.  We ought to break down those barriers by encouraging engagement between Americans and North Koreans.  This year marks a decade since the New York Philharmonic Orchestra performed in Pyongyang, but the North Korean national symphony has not seen a return engagement in New York City.  The more that North Koreans see Americans and engage with them, the greater the demand will be for information about the United States and the outside world.

In addition, we should encourage engagement between the United Nations and North Korea.  The Special Rapporteur for persons with disabilities has visited Pyongyang, but there are other UN officials dealing with women and children issues, who are seen as a lesser threat.  We should encourage such international contact and engagement with United Nations agencies and officials.

There are a number of areas where we can make cautious non-threatening steps forward on human rights, and this is the time to do it.  In the long run, respect for human rights may well be more critical to limiting or eliminating nuclear weapons than military agreements and solemn proclamations on security.