Human Rights

U.S. Sanctions North Korean Officials for Human Rights Violations—How Significant?

After a silence of several months on North Korea’s human rights record, the U.S. government is again calling attention to the issue. Earlier this year, President Trump raised the cry over U.S. citizens being held in North Korea, singled out North Korean defectors in his January 2018 State of the Union speech, and met with a group of defectors in the Oval Office a day or two later. Vice President Mike Pence was accompanied to the PyeongChang Olympics in February by the father of U.S. college student Otto Warmbier, who died after incarceration in Pyongyang.

After the summit between Kim Jong-un and President Trump was announced in March and then held in Singapore in June, a hush fell over U.S. criticism of the North on human rights. In a passionate speech before the mid-term elections last October, the president said that he received “beautiful letters” from Kim and that the two “fell in love.”

In the last few days, however, the Department of Treasury has sanctioned three senior North Korean officials for human rights abuses; and the Department of State issued a report on human rights abuses and censorship, and North Korea was once again officially designated a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act, which requires annual listing of countries guilty of particularly egregious violations of religious freedom.

The media has given significant attention to the sanctions and the report. When the sanctions were announced, a press release quoting Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was widely quoted: “The United States has consistently condemned the North Korean regime for its flagrant and egregious abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and this administration will continue to take action against human rights abusers around the globe.” The State Department did not provide a quote from the Secretary of State, but issued a quote from the deputy press spokesperson, Robert Palladino: “Human rights abuses in North Korea remain among the worst in the world and include extrajudicial killings, forced labor, torture, prolonged arbitrary detention, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence.”

The message that much of the media picked up was that after a break, the United States was taking renewed steps to press North Korea on its human rights record. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency headline expressed it this way: “U.S. determined to press N.K. over human rights abuses: State Department.”

A closer look at the flurry of actions by the U.S. government in the second week of December, however, suggests that this does not necessarily represent a resurgence of U.S. concern for North Korea’s human rights record. First of all, December 10 is International Human Rights Day and a special anniversary this year. This is the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948. The U.S. government flourish on North Korea human rights is a part of the much broader focus on human rights that the anniversary of this important document usually generates this time of year.

Second, this year Human Rights Day will not see a UN Security Council debate on North Korea’s dismal human rights record for the first time in four years. From 2014 to 2017 inclusive, the Security Council has discussed North Korean human rights issues in early December. This year, however, the United States and its allies on the Council were not able to muster the 9 of 15 votes needed to put the topic on the Council’s agenda.

The reason does not appear to be lack of effort on the part of the U.S. Mission to the UN in New York, but rather a twist of fate because the rotating membership of the Council currently has one too many opponents of raising North Korean human right issues—or any other human rights issues—in a Council session. Pyongyang certainly came out stronglyagainst discussing its human rights record in the Security Council and accused Washington of “inciting an atmosphere of hostility” and “stoking confrontation.” That routine tirade does not appear to have had much impact on U.S. government efforts to convene the discussion. With that failure, however, there was additional pressure on U.S. diplomats to come up with some compensating news.

Third, the sanctions and report of the second week of December are required by U.S. legislation. The report on human rights abuses and censorship issued by the Department of State is directly related to the sanctions imposed by the Department of Treasury. The North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 (Public Law 114-122), signed by President Obama in February 2016, requires the imposition of sanctions on senior North Korean officials for human rights violations.

Under terms of this legislation, Kim Jong-un and 14 other North Korean senior officials were sanctioned in mid-2016. The law also requires periodic review of the sanctions and a determination as to whether additional individuals should be included. Kim Jong-un’s younger sister, and a leading North Korean official in her own right, as well as seven other senior officials were added to the list of sanctioned individuals in January 2017. Adding an additional three senior figures to the list in December 2018 are the first additions to the sanctioned list in nearly two years. The sanctions are symbolic since they prohibit owning an American bank account or engaging in economic exchanges with U.S. individuals or entities, actions that North Korean officials do not engage in, even if they are not sanctioned.

The actions taken were noteworthy, and positive in terms of emphasizing U.S. concern for human rights. At the same time, however, this is not a fundamental shift or a return to publicizing or pressing North Korea on its human rights abuses. These actions were all taken without a word from President Trump personally, and there has been no word on the issue from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The Department of State’s deputy press secretary was the source of the comment on the human rights report from the Department of State. Significantly, Secretary Pompeo is the senior U.S. official who has been most directly involved in dealing with the North.

Are the actions taken the second week of December a positive step forward? Absolutely. Are they an indication of a new policy emphasis on human rights by the U.S. government? Hardly. If there is a shift toward greater emphasis on human rights in U.S. policy, more than we have seen this week is required.