Elephants in the Room

Trump Needs to Get Serious About Human Rights in North Korea

More than 20 million North Koreans have their human dignity trampled upon daily. The United States should do more for them.

North Koreans attend a mass rally in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on Dec. 1, 2017. (Kim Won-Jin/AFP/Getty Images)
North Koreans attend a mass rally in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on Dec. 1, 2017. (Kim Won-Jin/AFP/Getty Images)

This week, Vice President Mike Pence is set to lead the U.S. delegation to the Olympic games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The delegation includes Fred Warmbier, father of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died after mistreatment by North Korea. The North Koreans in attendance may see Warmbier’s presence as an affront. The South, which is trying to leverage the games to lower tensions with Pyongyang, may not welcome it either.

Pence’s trip comes on the heels of President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address last week. Given the ongoing tensions with North Korea over its nuclear ambitions, it was not surprising that the president spent part of his speech discussing the country. But it was a welcome surprise to hear him talk about the abysmal state of human rights there.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Ji Seong-ho, the courageous North Korean escapee who the president hailed in his remarks. I interviewed Ji for the Freedom Collection, a project of the George W. Bush Institute to collect the stories of freedom advocates and activists from around the world.

When we spoke, Ji told me, “Human dignity or respect for human dignity is simply non-existent in North Korea. I’m able to now study at a university in South Korea. The reason why I decided to leave the North was because my own human dignity was trampled upon.”

Ji’s heroic and inspirational story is a reminder of the nature of life under the North Korean regime. More than 20 million North Koreans have their human dignity trampled upon daily. Yet the United States has not given this issue the attention it deserves.

In the year since the president took office, North Korea has continued to make rapid progress on developing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. The administration deserves credit for ramping up and trying to strengthen international resolve on economic sanctions. While these efforts have not been completely successful, as China and other countries continue to resist strong sanctions, they are commendable efforts in the right direction.

In contrast, the Trump administration’s rhetoric has weakened the international consensus on North Korea and has made it more difficult to resolve these threats. It would be far more productive to highlight the human condition on the ground.

As experts have pointed out in Bush Institute publications and elsewhere, North Korea’s human rights abuses, such as its military-first policies and use of slave labor, are directly linked with the strategic threat it poses to its neighbors and the world.

We know that the regime in Pyongyang is extremely sensitive to criticism on this front because it attacks the core nature and legitimacy of the regime — the fact that it is an evil dictatorship that enslaves its people.

Inexplicably, the administration lumped North Koreans into its now-expired policy of banning refugee admissions from 11 countries. This was an indefensible line to take against people who have suffered grievously under one of the most brutal regimes on the planet. Trump should never have enacted this ban, but it is encouraging that it was finally lifted on Jan. 29.

The president’s belated attention to human rights is welcome and I hope reflects a shift in thinking. If the administration is serious about North Korean human rights, there are a number of actions it could take immediately.

Key diplomatic positions remain unconscionably vacant, more than a year after inauguration. The president should immediately nominate his candidates for the State Department special envoy for North Korea human rights and for U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Korea. Hours before the president’s State of the Union speech, the Washington Post revealed that Victor Cha was no longer in the running to be ambassador in Seoul. Cha is superbly qualified for the post and has a unique understanding of the importance of the human rights and security concerns, and the relation between them. This shortsighted decision will even further set back efforts to put a top-notch team in place.

The White House should also lend its support to reauthorizing the North Korean Human Rights Act, which is moving through Congress. Once passed, the administration should fully implement its provisions, which include easing the pathway for North Korean refugees to come to America, support for civil society efforts to transmit information into North Korea, and a robust American diplomatic effort on these issues.

Hearing the stories of brave exiles like Ji remind us of the horrors of North Korea’s brutal system. It’s important that the U.S. president speaks out clearly on human rights — in North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and everywhere else — and stands up to autocrats and dictators. Let’s hope Ji Seong-ho’s State of the Union shout-out and the vice president’s visit to South Korea are the start of a more holistic and effective Trump administration policy on North Korea.

Lindsay Lloyd is the deputy director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.

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