The Security-Human Rights Nexus in North Korea

The Security-Human Rights Nexus in North Korea

Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov once said, a “country which does not respect the rights of its own citizens will not respect the rights of its neighbors.” In other words, human rights and sustainable peace are connected. Sakharov’s observation perfectly captures the dynamics surrounding North Korea today and the growing bipartisan consensus in Washington that a nexus exists between North Korean human rights and national security.

In recent months, Pyongyang raised eyebrows after declaring its first “hydrogen bomb” test. Weeks later, it seized headlines again by launching a satellite into orbit and showcasing its developing, long-range missile capabilities.

In response to Pyongyang’s saber-rattling, Washington did something increasingly rare: Congress passed a new sanctions bill with overwhelming bipartisan support, and President Obama signed it into law. The North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act ties sanctions to both the regime’s nuclear weapons program and its appalling human rights abuses.

As House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce explained, “[t]argeted sanctions aimed at banks and companies that do business with Kim Jong Un will cut off the cash he needs to sustain his illicit weapons programs, his army, and the continued repression of the North Korean people.”

Through this bill, both parties demonstrated a shift in previous thinking that placed security ahead of human rights as a policy priority. Instead, there’s increasing recognition of a connection between the two. Now, more can be done to explore the linkage.

This mindset was on display at a recent conference cosponsored by the George W. Bush Institute, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the Yonsei Center for Human Liberty. Keynote speaker Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, noted that “many of [North Korea’s] human rights abuses underwrite the regime’s weapons program, including forced labor, through mass mobilizations, political prisoners, and overseas labor contracts, and food distribution policies that favor the military and lead to chronic malnourishment among its citizens.”

The United Nations Commission of Inquiry report on North Korea, released two years ago, is partly responsible for transforming the conversation on North Korea. It exposed Pyongyang’s nightmarish inner workings in a way that’s been impossible to ignore. As former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell commented, “I know of no other issue [than North Korean human rights] in Asia that went from being a peripheral issue…to a central feature of the debate.”

The evolving discourse on North Korea has the potential to influence broader U.S. policy. While more research is needed on how best to leverage the nexus of human rights and national security, there are general steps Washington can take.

The first step, however, lies with the North Korean people. Assistant Secretary Malinowski commented that “[w]hile we can and must seek to manage and minimize such threats to our security through diplomacy, through sanctions, through strong support for our allies, the problem is not likely to be solved until the people of North Korea have a say in deciding their future.”

Breaking Pyongyang’s information blockade presents a great opportunity to empower North Koreans. Foreign media is permeating the country’s borders through DVDs, USBs, and foreign radio; in doing so, it exposes the regime’s lies about the “utopian” state and the outside world. U.S. leaders, in partnership with regional allies, civil society organizations, and the private sector, must continue devising innovative ways to develop, deliver, and disseminate content that satisfies North Koreans’ information appetite. Programs like the Human Rights Foundation’s “Hackathon” and “Flash Drives for Freedom” are creative examples of this.

Another step is engaging China, particularly amid a changing political climate. Beijing is uneasy over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and continued leadership purges. This was in evidence on Wednesday, when, with China’s blessing, the U.N. Security Council imposed stricter sanctions on North Korea. The new sanctions target the North Korean elite along with the raw materials and cash fueling Pyongyang’s weapons program. While the regime’s behavior has forced Beijing’s hand, China’s commitment to enforcing this resolution on its ally must be watched.

Washington might also leverage the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act to pressure China on its extractive industry contracts with the North Korean mining and development sectors, which use slave and political prison camp labor to support proliferation efforts. China must also live up to its commitments and end its policy of sending refugees back to an uncertain fate in North Korea.

Lastly, the United States and the U.N. should encourage countries in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, to stop importing North Korean slave labor, a key source of funding for Pyongyang’s weapons program. It’s immoral and prohibited by Article 8 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which North Korea has been a party to since 1981.

Improving the human condition for North Korea’s 24 million people is a moral imperative, but it’s also pragmatic. Pyongyang flouts international law and threatens the United States whenever its interests dictate. That dynamic won’t change in earnest until the North Korean people’s fundamental freedoms are restored.

Photo Credit: DON EMMERT / Staff