Pressing Pyongyang on Rights

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

July 31, 2009

The now-defunct six-party talks in which the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China participated focused almost exclusively on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. But with a struggle for succession underway in Pyongyang and some of the country’s internal controls reportedly beginning to erode, it’s time to rethink the near-exclusion of human rights from the U.S.-North Korean dialogue.

The fear of raising human rights issues has been based largely on the belief that doing so would distract from efforts to disable North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. But past negotiations focused narrowly on nuclear weapons have not produced sustainable outcomes, and they are unlikely to do so in the future unless they are grounded in a broader and more solid framework. Discussions about access to North Korea and the freer movement of people, information and ideas across its borders are needed to reinforce nuclear verification and inspections. The nature of the North Korean regime has bearing on its conduct at home and abroad.

Concern has also been expressed that North Korea could become defiant, or even implode, if rights became a focus. But a carefully developed strategy to incorporate human rights into talks could avoid the kind of collapse that could overwhelm the South with refugees and rehabilitation costs by seeking to gradually pry open North Korea’s closed society. This would involve identifying the human rights issues where progress might be achievable and moving forward on those areas first.

Families separated by the Korean War and, more recently, by famine, extreme poverty or political persecution in the North could be a starting point. Although North Korea has allowed inter-Korean talks about family reunions, these have produced only brief visits to the North for 1,600 of the 125,000 South Koreans who have applied. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has expert tracing and reunification facilities and is present in Pyongyang, should be brought in to speed up responses to requests, especially from people over 70 for whom further delays could mean never seeing their families again.

Another achievable goal could be the liberation of the children and grandchildren of political prisoners in labor camps. Not only are North Koreans arbitrarily confined for “wrong thinking,” “wrong knowledge” and “wrong doing,” but up to three generations of their family members can be imprisoned as well. According to one camp escapee, because of this guilt by association, small children are forced to haul coal in underground mines and watch the executions of family members. Surely releasing them would pose no conceivable danger to North Korea’s government, and this could serve as an entry point to longer-term discussions about the estimated 150,000 to 200,000 political prisoners held in brutal conditions.

Above all, the strategy should focus on securing greater access to North Korea. After years of negotiations, there has been progress on the humanitarian front. In 2008, for instance, Pyongyang agreed to allow greater access to relief workers bringing in food, to let them conduct inspections of food distribution with 24-hour notification and to permit Korean-speaking staff members. Though many of these concessions were withdrawn this year and need to be reinstated, a foundation was established.

Comparable efforts must be exerted to gain access for international human rights workers. For more than five years, North Korea has refused entry to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea, denied visits by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and barred the Red Cross from seeing prisoners or foreign citizens abducted to the North. Nor has North Korea accepted the standards of the International Labor Organization so that the ILO can investigate labor camps and factories. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has not been able to screen North Koreans who have fled to China or monitor the plight of those forced back into North Korea. It is time for the United States, together with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, to mobilize a group of states with influence with North Korea to press for compliance with the goals and programs of the United Nations. A coherent plan would bring together all the disparate U.N. agencies and offices that seek human rights improvements in North Korea.

Finally, the creation of an organization for peace and security in Northeast Asia should be a central aim of this new strategy, one that would expand the discussion among the six parties beyond strategic, economic and energy issues to include human rights and humanitarian concerns once multilateral talks resume. North Korea has already ratified the major international human rights agreements and might be more willing to face up to its international obligations within a regional framework from which it could gain political and economic benefits. Former ambassador James Goodby, who helped set up the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has argued, in a paper written while he was at the Brookings Institution, that a comparable framework for Asia could be “a much-needed agent for change” and help to hold governments accountable for the treatment of their people. With Kim Jong Il ailing and the future of the country uncertain, there may now be an opportunity to add human rights to the agenda.