Talking Human Rights With North Korea

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

August 29, 2004

Whatever would Ronald Reagan think of the six-party talks to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program? Although Kim Jong Il’s Communist government is the world’s worst human rights violator, the United States, Japan and South Korea have managed to exclude all reference to humanitarian and human rights concerns from the discussions. Their fear is that any mention of the 200,000 political prisoners in forced labor camps, the suppression of the population’s civil and political freedoms or the punishment meted out to those who try to flee the country would antagonize the North Korean government and jeopardize chances for a nuclear agreement.

This is hard to understand, given that when confronted by the Soviet Union, which had far greater nuclear power and targeted it specifically against the United States, Reagan did not see fit to give up on human rights goals. In fact, he publicly affirmed in 1982 that “the persecution of people” must be “on the negotiating table or the United States does not belong at that table.” Similarly, President Jimmy Carter before him negotiated the SALT II arms control agreement with the Soviets while calling attention to human rights concerns.

Reagan and Carter were able to make this link because of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, an East-West agreement that created a multilateral forum for discussing security concerns, economic and scientific issues, and human rights. Moscow signed on for security guarantees — the acknowledgment of post-World War II borders — while the West secured a commitment to advance human rights. In fact, one of the lessons of this period was that only in that broad context of strategic, political and economic issues could progress be made on human rights.

Once they resume, the talks with North Korea, which involve the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China, could create a multilateral forum for the Korean Peninsula along the lines of the Helsinki process. The talks already cover nuclear and security issues, and more recently economic questions were added. Human rights and humanitarian issues should be brought in as well. For one thing, foreign investment in a country with forced labor must be linked to human rights standards. Any increase in food aid should go hand in hand with humanitarian principles of unimpeded access and equitable distribution. Nuclear verification and inspections would benefit as well from these openings.

South Korea’s support should be sought as a first step toward creating a Helsinki framework. Since 1994 South Korea has gained experience of the Helsinki process through its partnership with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the successor to Helsinki. On the European continent, South Korea promotes democracy and human rights and sends election monitors to the Balkans. But on the Korean Peninsula it looks the other way, fearing that any mention of human rights in the North would trigger turmoil, collapse and an outpouring of refugees.

Yet, since 2001, North Korea has been involved, albeit modestly, in “human rights dialogues” with the European Union and the ambassadors from Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom. In a note to the United Nations, the North Koreans claim to have allowed the European Union “access to reform-through-labor centers and contact with former inmates.”

Using those talks as a springboard, Europe’s Helsinki organization could offer to bring North Korea into observer status. This would expose the country to multilateral discussions about democracy, freedom of movement, family reunification and the safeguarding of civil and political freedoms. Within this broader political and security framework, North Korea might be more willing to face up to its international human rights obligations.

China will need to be brought into the process as well. It hosts the six-party talks and is North Korea’s primary ally. Between 200,000 and 300,000 North Koreans have fled to China because of famine, lack of work and persecution. There they face the threat of arrest and deportation. Yet promoting fairer food distribution in North Korea and improved human rights conditions would help curb refugee flows into China. A regional forum could also explore burden-sharing with countries willing to resettle North Koreans, such as Russia, where a provincial government has said it would take 200,000, and the United States, where Congress has expressed readiness to accept North Korean refugees.

Finally, a multilateral framework would help reconcile the differences between humanitarian and human rights advocates over how to deal with North Korea. Relief workers delivering food aid to North Korea fear that any overt criticism of the North’s human rights record would limit humanitarian access. But mounting concerns over the diversion of international food aid to the army and communist elite — rather than to the 6.5 million Koreans reported at risk — have led to the withdrawal of leading nongovernmental organizations and a reduction in donations from governments. A Helsinki process would make food distribution part of the discussion along with human rights issues. As matters stand, a sense of direction is lacking for dealing with the serious human rights and humanitarian problems on the Korean Peninsula. The Helsinki process provided that essential element for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. Adapted to Asia, it could do the same for North Korea.