Advocacy for North Korean human rights has lost momentum in recent years. A near-total lockdown imposed by the North Korean regime throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a confluence of pressing global problems, most notably the war in Ukraine, has put North Korea (DPRK) issues on the backburner. However, new appointments related to North Korean human rights at the United Nations and in the South Korean government, and the upcoming 10th anniversary of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on North Korean Human Rights may provide an opportunity for U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration to give renewed focus to the rights situation.
Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for East Asia Policy Studies
SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies
Former Brookings Expert
Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea
New opportunities for rights advocacy
To date, Biden’s increased attention to global democracy and human rights has not necessarily translated into greater activity on North Korean human rights. However, the following developments may prod the administration to take a closer look.
First is the change in leadership in South Korea in May to a conservative government. South Korean conservatives have traditionally been more vocal on North Korean human rights and willing to publicly call out the Kim regime for rights violations. The recent appointment of Ambassador Lee Shin-wha as the new envoy for North Korean human rights, a position created in 2016 but left unfilled during the previous progressive government, signals Seoul’s intent to give priority to human rights in its North Korea policy. More broadly, the Yoon government has advocated a foreign policy that upholds values such as freedom and human rights.
Second is the appointment of Elizabeth Salmón as United Nations special rapporteur on North Korean human rights who can help revitalize and inject creativity in addressing ongoing rights concerns. Both Salmón and Lee have experience at the United Nations, but neither was steeped in North Korean human rights advocacy prior to their appointments. This will help both promote accountability and justice while also supporting humanitarian engagement as North Korea’s pandemic-induced border lockdown eventually eases. Moreover, their more neutral background may create a narrow space for dialogue with North Korean officials.
Third, as momentum begins to build on North Korean human rights, greater pressure will develop for the Biden administration to appoint its own special envoy for North Korean human rights to respond to North Korea’s worsening human rights conditions and to Russia’s and China’s support for North Korea’s intransigence at the U.N. Although the administration has stated its intent to fill the Congressionally-mandated post, the position continues to remain unfilled since former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration took office.
To bring greater attention to human rights in its North Korea policy, the Biden administration should take the following steps.
Appoint a special envoy for North Korean human rights
The appointment of a North Korean human rights ambassador will send a message about the importance that rights and values play in the administration’s foreign policy. It also suggests that improved U.S.-North Korea relations will depend on the regime’s alleviating oppression towards its people.
Several reasons, including a “laborious vetting process” may be holding up the appointment, but regardless of the reasons, the Biden administration first needs to determine what approach it will take on human rights in its overall North Korea policy. How public, for example, will the role be on human rights? Will it call for greater accountability for reported crimes against humanity? Or will its approach be more low key, with the envoy expected to downplay issues such as political prison camps and pay attention rather to issues to which the regime may be more amenable, such as health or food security, family reunifications, or the rights of children and women? Will the envoy work to erode North Korea’s information blockade? The Biden administration needs to be clear what direction it wants to take on human rights in choosing an envoy.
Stay consistent on North Korean human rights messaging
Human rights should not be treated as an on-off switch. For example, Trump put a spotlight on North Korean human rights during his U.N. General Assembly speech in 2017 and in his State of the Union address in 2018. However, as a period of intense hostility between the United States and North Korea gave way to high profile summitry, mention of human rights disappeared. The South Korean government under former Korean President Moon Jae-in also avoided raising the issue, believing that doing so would facilitate inter-Korea dialogue and engagement. This sends Pyongyang the wrong message that human rights are raised only when expedient and turned on only to be used as a weapon for political purposes. Should the Biden administration begin to address North Korean human rights in a serious way, it should be both consistent and persistent in its messaging.
Ensure that human rights is integrated in the administration’s overall North Korea policy
A policy for North Korea should be comprehensive, encompassing security issues, normalization of relations, economic aid and investment, and promotion of humanitarian and human rights objectives. Human rights goals should also be integrated in different parts of the policy. For example, if people-to-people engagement between North Koreans and Americans resume, the United States should negotiate to ensure that U.S. citizens are not arbitrarily detained or imprisoned while traveling or conducting business in the country. Family reunifications should entail discussions that ensure that family members in North and South Korea can stay in contact after the initial reunion. If humanitarian aid resumes, aid officials must assure that the aid provided does not reinforce favored groups and provinces, but reaches the most vulnerable, including those in detention facilities. In sum, human rights must be fully integrated into U.S. policy since the normalization of relations between the U.S. and North Korea will not be successful without more openness and respect for human rights.
Reinforce the U.N.’s work on North Korean human rights
The United States must help rebuild the coalition that existed between South Korea, the European Union, Japan, and other like-minded states so that they jointly co-sponsor the U.N.’s resolutions on human rights in the DPRK, mobilize other states to speak out, and win the votes needed to convene an official Security Council meeting to debate accountability and the forwarding of the North Korean case to an international criminal tribunal. Pressure in the past emanating from the General Assembly and Security Council has produced some positive changes in North Korea’s participation at the U.N. and in some of its practices.
Empower the North Korean people
Together with South Korea, the United States and other countries should do all they can to expand the availability of information to the North Korean people through support for radio broadcasts and other messaging as well as by pressing for the dissemination of U.N. human rights reports in the country. The population’s exposure to information from the outside world, in particular South Korea’s impressive advances, could be an important catalyst in bringing about change that improves the lives of ordinary North Koreans.
These four steps are by no means exhaustive of the tasks the United States can advance in support of North Korean human rights. But they do offer a starting point to integrate North Korean human rights into the overall policy conversation on North Korea as concerns about a seventh nuclear test and deeper ties to Russia loom ahead.
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