The Road to Pyongyang Goes Through Helsinki

Here's how you really solve the North Korean nuke problem.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

As John Kerry makes his first trip to Asia as secretary of state, North Korea seems poised to welcome him with a flurry of missile tests, and in Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo, he will surely discuss how to deal with North Korea’s recent provocations. But Washington’s head-on approach to Pyongyang’s nuclear program has failed for decades, and the situation has only grown more dangerous, as shown by the new reports that North Korea may have developed a warhead small enough to fit on a ballistic missile. The best way to resolve the ongoing nuclear crisis is to stop talking about nukes — and instead focus on advancing North Korean human rights, reorienting global attention from the North’s plutonium to its people.

Amnesty International has long chronicled the DPRK’s endemic human rights abuses, under which millions suffer. That suffering takes many forms. Food insecurity and malnutrition are widespread, and there are persistent reports of starvation, particularly in more remote regions. The country’s famines have been under-reported inside and outside the DPRK because of severe restrictions of movement and a near-total clamp-down on expression, information, and association.

Hundreds of thousands of people — including children — are arbitrarily held in political prison camps and other detention facilities, where they are subjected to forced labor, denial of food as punishment, torture, and public executions. In 2011, Amnesty used satellites to document the apparent expansion of some of these prison camps. Last month, analysis of newly acquired images showed what appeared to be the blurring of lines between a political prison camp (Kwanliso-14) and the surrounding population, raising fears of new movement controls and other restrictions on people living near prison camps.

In January, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said that North Korea had "one of the worst — but least understood and reported — human rights situations in the world." And last month the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to launch a commission of inquiry into "systemic, widespread and grave" human rights violations inside the DPRK, including crimes against humanity. This is a laudatory step — even if there is little chance the North will cooperate with the inquiry — but the real question is not whether there are severe human rights violations inside the DPRK. The question is what can be done about them.

For the better part of three decades, the world has focused its attention on ending the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program, leaving the human element largely as an afterthought. Those in the know have avidly watched every meter of concrete poured at the Yongbyon nuclear facility, every shovel of dirt removed from nuclear-test-site adits, and every kilometer of highway driven by road-mobile missile systems. Sternly worded letters have been drafted, U.N. Security Council resolutions adopted, a framework agreement struck, cooling towers destroyed, international monitoring schemes devised, a "Leap Day" deal crafted.

Nothing has worked.

And the coercive tactics favored by the international community to dissuade the DPRK from developing nuclear weapons — trade sanctions, diplomatic isolation, travel restrictions, limits on cultural and educational exchanges, suspension of humanitarian assistance — have arguably bolstered the legitimacy and power of those in Pyongyang who fear openness more than isolation. The marshals of the Korean People’s Army and their precocious leader are masters at playing chess with a board populated by bombast, infantry divisions, artillery pieces, Scud missiles, and nukes.

The world needs to change the pieces and stop playing the DPRK’s game.

The leaders of the DPRK are not motivated by a love of plutonium or highly enriched uranium, but by their quest for security and power. To persuade them to abandon their nuclear weapons, the voices of the North Korean people, especially elites in Pyongyang, will be more powerful than those of foreigners. We can’t be certain what North Koreans make of their nation’s circumstances, because there is no independent domestic media, no known opposition political parties, no independent civil society, and criticism of the government can lead to imprisonment. But we know that the government makes extraordinary efforts to prevent its people from learning the truth about the failures of their economy and the successes of the DPRK’s neighbors. By focusing its attention on the human dimension of the North Korean challenge, the world can gradually change the attitudes of the elites and thereby bring pressure on the leadership to see their nuclear program as a liability rather than an asset.

The DPRK’s leaders will not be easily swayed. The Obama administration has held up Myanmar as an example — change course, and the United States will be your friend. But viewed from Pyongyang, the Libya case study remains far more persuasive than the example of Myanmar, no matter how gussied up. North Korea’s leaders believe that Muammar al-Qaddafi’s decision to abandon his nuclear program allowed the subsequent overthrow of his government.

The Obama administration’s approach has come to be known as "strategic patience." I have learned over 24 years of dealing with the DPRK that "wise and masterly inactivity" can sometimes be an effective tactic. Right now, for instance, the first order of business is to defuse the current crisis by avoiding tit-for-tat escalations, restoring North-South cooperation at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and reiterating offers of dialogue. These steps require only patience.

But inactivity, however masterful, must eventually give way to action. The smart choice on the Korean Peninsula is to engage Pyongyang with the goal of improving human rights, especially access to information. That’s how we will change the dynamic that has driven us from crisis to crisis — and ultimately resolve the nuclear issue.

It’s worked before. The 1975 Helsinki Accords and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that they created promoted reconciliation among former adversaries and, ultimately, the end of the Cold War. The Helsinki process established people-to-people channels of communication and cooperation between East and West, with a heavy focus on human rights and exchanges. As Korea expert Andrei Lankov has pointed out, contrary to the expectations of the skeptics, those channels, over time, reshaped public opinion in the Soviet Union, encouraging a process of opening up and reform.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye has proposed a Northeast Asian Peace and Cooperation Initiative to replace or augment the defunct Six Party Talks on denuclearization. It is a worthy idea. If embraced by China, Russia, and the United States, a Helsinki-style peace mechanism could be established with the immediate goal of expanding contacts at all levels of North Korean society and enhancing the access of the North Korean
people, especially elites, to reliable sources of information. Truth is a powerful antidote for fear and repression. Governments and NGOs should address the nutritional and public health needs of North Korea’s malnourished and sick children, and the international community should press for every North Korean prisoner to have not just humane living conditions, but justice.

The North Korean people are smart, hard-working, and ambitious, but they cannot grasp a future obscured by the smoke of Musudan missile launches or hidden by the barriers of international isolation. Putting human rights first, and doing so through a regional mechanism that fosters openness, should be an alternative to the policies that have failed for so many years to resolve to conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

<p> Frank Jannuzi is head of the Washington office of Amnesty International. </p>