North Korea, Human Rights and Chen Guangcheng

The bold escape from house arrest of Chinese human rights dissident Chen Guangcheng captured world attention and became a principal item on the US-China agenda. Is there anything to be learned from this experience for dealing with human rights in North Korea?

To begin with, it would be a step forward (more accurately a great leap) if North Koreans were able to become dissidents in their own country. Right now, it is not even an option. Anyone who so much as questions government policies is hauled off for interrogation, back breaking labor, and extensive imprisonment. Former prisoners can become human rights advocates only after escaping North Korea.

Nor have human rights yet become a legitimate, ongoing subject of discussion with North Korea. On the US-China agenda are political, economic and strategic issues as well as human rights. The US and China in fact invite outside experts to their human rights dialogues; and some of the US experts are expected to raise difficult issues American officials prefer to avoid. To be sure, getting to that point with China took time and the achievements may sometimes be slim but a foundation exists for talking to China about human rights and resolving cases like Chen’s without upsetting the entire US-China relationship.

With North Korea, the dynamic has been different. Containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions has been the overriding priority and all other issues have taken a back seat. Little or no mention of human rights was made from 1995 to 2004 when the US was providing large quantities of food and fuel to the North to have it freeze its nuclear program. Nor did the US insist at that time on monitoring arrangements to ensure that food reached the needy. Congress in fact reacted by adopting the 2004 North Korea Human Rights Act, which called on the Executive Branch to “include” human rights in its negotiations with North Korea and improve food monitoring as well. The Act authorized the appointment of a US Special Envoy on Human Rights in North Korea.

Since that time, human rights have gained a higher (albeit modest) profile but there is still no established niche for discussion of such issues in US-North Korean relations. Special Envoy Robert King to his credit has managed to raise some human rights concerns with North Korean officials, spoken out publicly and has actively engaged at the UN. But when the 2012 “Leap Day” agreement on denuclearization fell through, the dialogue on human rights the Special Envoy was trying to develop collapsed as well. So too did the US plan to provide food aid to some 900,000 hungry North Koreans. And efforts to increase people to people exchanges went by the wayside which over time might have helped pry open North Korea’s largely closed society.

The linkage of issues to nuclear progress, understandable to be sure given North Korea’s provocative behavior, still has the effect of holding all other issues hostage. The Six Party talks which ended in 2008 (involving the United States, China, South Korea, North Korea, Japan and Russia) failed to morph into a multilateral process for Northeast Asia that could have formalized discussion of political, strategic, economic and human rights issues in the way the Helsinki Final Act did for the U.S. and former Soviet Union. Indeed, one of the lessons of the Helsinki period was that only through the broad context of security, political and economic issues could progress on human rights be made.

Some observations are in order.

First, it’s time to recognize that nuclear issues will be much harder to resolve if insufficient attention is paid to the nature of the regime. As Nobel Laureate Andrei Sakharov observed during the height of the Cold War, international trust and disarmament are “inconceivable” without an open society and fundamental human rights. That attention to human rights will undermine the reaching of a nuclear agreement has become a shibboleth that should be put to rest.

Second, the United States should seek to ensure that a range of issues is on the table in bilateral and multilateral talks so that lack of progress in one area of negotiation does not necessarily shut down all other avenues. This was the experience of more than a decade of the Helsinki process; the possibility of adapting it to Northeast Asia should be explored. 

Third, raising human rights with North Korea should go beyond discussing food assistance and the need for stringent monitoring conditions. It should encompass the cases of political prisoners, like the father of Shin Dong Hyuk who may still be alive in Camp 14, or the wife and daughters of Oh Kil Nam, who were locked away when he sought asylum in the West. Access for the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Food Program to the camps should be on the table. Some 150,000 to 200,000 are confined in penal labor camps and high rates of death in detention are reported. The need to release children from these camps should be way up on the agenda: their freedom will pose no conceivable danger to North Korea’s state security. In 1981, North Korea acceded to two international treaties on civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights and thereby opened itself up to scrutiny and accountability. It’s time for the U.S. to take it at its word.

Fourth, every effort should be made to pierce the information wall around North Korea by radio broadcasts, sending in DVDs and mobile media equipment, and promoting people to people exchanges of journalists, lawyers, labor experts, human rights specialists and others – irrespective of nuclear progress. These programs could help North Koreans overcome the forced isolation to which their government subjects them.