Elephants in the Room

North Korea Is a Human Rights Disaster. Trump Shouldn’t Turn a Blind Eye.

The United States has a moral responsibility and pragmatic imperative to keep rights violations on the table at the Singapore summit.

North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho speaks with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House on Feb. 2. (Zach Gibson/Pool/Getty Images)
North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho speaks with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House on Feb. 2. (Zach Gibson/Pool/Getty Images)

As U.S. President Donald Trump readies for his June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, both countries’ teams are working to finalize the scope of the historic meeting. Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s talks this week with  Kim Yong Chol, a top aide to the North Korean leader and vice chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, yielded not only a rescheduled summit but also more realistic expectations about how much it could accomplish and the likely need for multiple meetings.

In addition to dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program and declaring a formal end to the Korean War, the U.S. team should prepare to address the country’s systemic violations of human rights. Raising the issue of human rights is not only — and most importantly — the morally right thing to do, but it is also directly linked to the security situation, central to U.S. policy toward North Korea, and key to building congressional support for any progress or deal the president is able to make.

While the primary objective of the summit is denuclearization, it also offers an opportunity for the U.S. delegation to clarify the wider range of issues the United States prioritizes in its policy toward North Korea. It is highly unlikely that this meeting will yield an acknowledgement of human rights abuses on Kim’s part, or immediate progress, but it should establish a clear expectation that the United States will not turn a blind eye on these massive atrocities and should set the stage for future discussions.

Simply put, North Korea’s human rights abuses are among the worst in the world. These violations have been well documented by international human rights groups and a steady trickle of defectors who have managed to escape the brutal regime. In late 2017, a panel of experts released a report for the International Bar Association’s War Crimes Committee detailing North Korea’s political prisoner concentration camps, which are notorious for torture, executions, and brutal conditions. The experts compared these camps to Nazi concentration camps. In 2014, the U.N. commission of inquiry on North Korea chronicled a litany of abuses, including crimes against humanity, and recommended that the U.N. Security Council impose targeted sanctions, a recommendation that China and Russia unsurprisingly blocked. Shortly before the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence spoke of the “estimated 100,000 North Korean citizens [who] labor in modern-day gulags” and how dissidents — and their families — are imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. By Trump’s own words at this year’s State of the Union, where he introduced the courageous defector Ji Seong-ho, “No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea.” The tragic death of young American student Otto Warmbier, whose parents received a call from Trump in early May, serves as a reminder of the plight of prisoners in North Korea.

Reporting and official U.S. statements have recorded North Korea’s abuses and drawn links between them and the current security situation. The State Department characterizes the situation as “among the worst in the world, including those involving extrajudicial killings, forced labor, torture, prolonged arbitrary detention, as well as rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence inside the country.” In a report, it notes that these human rights abuses “underwrite the regime’s weapon’s program, including forced labor in the form of mass mobilizations, reeducation through labor camps, and overseas labor contracts. Thousands of North Koreans are sent abroad every year to work in slave-like conditions, earning revenue for the regime.” At a U.N. Security Council meeting in December 2017, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, not only decried the human rights situation but clearly and explicitly linked human rights to the security situation, stating, “The systematic human rights violations and abuses of the North Korean government are more than the cause of its people’s suffering. They are a means to a single end: Keeping the Kim Jong Un regime in power. The regime is using that power to develop an unnecessary arsenal and support enormous conventional military forces that pose a grave risk to international peace and security.”

Raising North Korea’s human rights concerns is not a new concept in U.S. foreign policy; human rights have long been a cornerstone of Washington’s policy toward North Korea. President George W. Bush signed the North Korea Human Rights Act into law in 2004, launching a series of targeted actions to respond to Pyongyang’s abuses. The United States maintains targeted human rights-related economic sanctions and travel restrictions on a handful of high-level North Korean government officials. It has had a stand-alone special envoy for North Korean human rights issues for close to a decade. (A position that remains unfilled under the Trump administration.) The United States has been a forceful voice on this issue in multilateral forums for years. To have a high-level summit in which this issue does not even make the agenda would be a significant divergence from U.S. policy on this issue — and from the Trump administration’s stated views.

Certainly, this would not be the first U.S. effort to raise human rights in discussions in which a significant security issue is on the table. President Ronald Reagan, faced with the significant security threat posed by the Soviet Union, did not shy away from raising issues of human rights.

In addition to the moral and policy imperative to raise these issues, there are two additional pragmatic reasons: congressional support and North Korea’s outlook.

The Trump administration may need congressional support for future action on North Korea, and the issue of human rights has long been on the congressional agenda. In April, the Senate reauthorized and updated the North Korean Human Rights Act. This bipartisan support for human rights in North Korea should remain strong and impact Congress’s reaction of the outcome of the Trump-Kim Summit. In May, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin made clear their expectation that Trump’s upcoming conversations with the North Korean regime should include its human rights record. If congressional support for easing or imposing sanctions or other actions post-summit comes into play, Trump’s handling of this issue will be important.

Beyond the U.S. perspective, North Korea’s outlook at this meeting is worth considering. Unquestionably, Kim will want to avoid discussion of his human rights record, particularly in light of calls for International Criminal Court action. But given his outlook, there may be more of an opportunity to expand the discussion. According to Joseph Yun, who served as the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy from 2016 to 2018, Kim also sees this meeting or future meetings as crucial to his international standing and sanctions relief, far more than a narrow discussion of his nuclear program. In an article for Foreign Affairs, Yun analyzed North Korea’s primary goals for the discussion, noting that Kim “is focused on the survival of his regime, beginning with the recognition of his country as a legitimate state, followed by an easing of economic sanctions.” The United States should utilize this desire to leverage progress on human rights. Any legitimacy and an easing of all sanctions cannot come from the international community — or the United States specifically — without significant progress on the abysmal human rights situation. The United States can capitalize on Kim’s broader outlook to make clear that human rights are central to North Korea’s future position in the world.

The talks on June 12 will be complicated and are unlikely to result in a final decision on any issue. Inserting human rights into these discussions will be difficult. That said, the United States has an unquestionable moral responsibility and pragmatic imperative to ensure that human rights are on the agenda.

If Trump has the opportunity to speak again with the Warmbiers, Ji, and other defectors whom Trump has hosted, or the three recently released American hostages, hopefully he will be able to say their stories were motivation for the United States to raise human rights in the upcoming U.S.-North Korea meetings.

Nicole Bibbins Sedaca is a professor in the practice of international relations at Georgetown University and the chair for the global politics and security concentration in the Master of Science in foreign service program. She is the chair of the board of directors of the International Justice Mission. She served for ten years in the United States Department of State, working on democracy promotion, human rights, human trafficking, religious freedom, refugees, and counterterrorism. The views are hers and not those of these organizations.

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