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South Korea Declines to Co-Sponsor North Korea Human Rights Resolution for First Time Since 2008

Seoul may be trying to preserve its fading diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang.

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The U.S.-led maximum pressure campaign against North Korea lost a bit of steam Friday as the Defense Department hinted that it may be willing to take a less provocative approach to joint military exercises with South Korea. A less noticeable sign of a softening of the pressure policy played out this week in an obscure committee of the United Nations General Assembly. On Thursday, Seoul decided to withdraw its name from a list of more than 40 co-sponsors of a General Assembly resolution condemning human rights abuses in North Korea.

As part of our Document of the Week series, we are sharing a copy of the resolution, a version of which is adopted each year. This is the first time since 2008, the era of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy toward North Korea, that Seoul has declined to co-sponsor the resolution.

The moves by South Korea and the United States, which did co-sponsor the North Korean rights resolution, appeared aimed at trying to preserve the prospects of diplomatic progress in on-again off-again talks between Pyongyang and Washington that are designed to persuade the North Koreans to dismantle their nuclear weapons program. On Thursday, a North Korean spokesman issued a statement protesting that the joint military exercises “constitute an undisguised breach” of an agreement North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had struck with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore last year. The spokesman raised the prospect that North Korea might end its moratorium on nuclear tests, saying that Pyongyang was losing patience and reserved the “self-defensive right of a sovereign state to take countermeasures.”

“We no longer feel the need to exercise any more patience,” the spokesperson added. “The U.S. had better behave itself with prudence at a sensitive time.”

The United States and its Western and Asian allies have sought for years to use the United Nations as a venue to turn up diplomatic pressure on Kim’s government by spotlighting its abuses. A U.N. commission of inquiry has documented a litany of crimes, including the use of torture, forced labor at a network of prison camps, and extrajudicial executions that amount to crimes against humanity.

Each year, the United States, Japan, and South Korea marshal support from dozens of countries for a resolution in the U.N. General Assembly human rights committee that “condemns the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights” in North Korea.

Seoul defended its decision, saying the government has an “unwavering” concern about atrocities in North Korea and remains committed to promoting human rights in the North. They decided not to co-sponsor the resolution in an attempt to tamp down tensions in the Korean Peninsula. But they ultimately voted in favor of it.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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