By the Democracy & Human Rights Working Group*
After his father’s death in 2011, Kim Jong-un became North Korea’s supreme leader and continues to rule the country as a one-party totalitarian dictatorship. Though there has been some growth in informal markets and government-approved private markets, all other aspects of daily life are tightly restricted and managed by the central government. There are no civil liberties, including freedom of speech, association, or assembly, and dissent is not tolerated. There is no independent media, judicial independence, or religious freedom. The authorities and security forces are guilty of committing widespread human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances, torture, and inhumane treatment of prisoners, particularly in their camps for political prisoners where starvation and other atrocities take place. Travel outside of the country is strictly controlled, as well as communication with the outside world. Despite numerous United Nations reports and resolutions condemning North Korea’s gross human rights abuses, the government simply ignores their findings and refuses to cooperate.
The spread of COVID-19 spurred a quick reaction from the authorities, who closed their borders and quarantined foreigners in January, and maintain that they have had zero confirmed cases of coronavirus. This denial of cases is the same approach North Korea took when it was faced with the Ebola virus and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015. However, after a number of reports from Radio Free Asia and others pointed to numerous cases of deaths from COVID-19 related symptoms, the regime in August 2020 finally admitted to the presence of the virus, though it is impossible to know how widespread the disease is since the ability to test and diagnose is minimal. The economic impact of these anti-coronavirus measures when combined with crippling international sanctions is significant, dealing a huge setback to Kim Jong-un’s stated goals of economic development and improving living standards.
Since President Donald Trump took office in 2017, he has met with Kim Jong-un three times with the aim of securing a deal to limit North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Unfortunately, none of these talks have met with success, as North Korea refuses to agree to the United States’ condition of full denuclearization in return for concessions on economic sanctions. Further, issues of human rights have largely been set aside. Throughout this time, rather than reducing the risk of confrontation, North Korea has continued to build and test elements of its ballistic missile and nuclear programs. While there are channels of communication between the two governments, the inclination for more summit diplomacy seems to have passed, as North Korea appears to be waiting to see what happens after the November 2020 presidential election. When the two countries are able to return to the negotiating table, a coherent strategy will need to be developed that allows for phased-in, reversible steps on both sides. A broader change in the political relationship will be necessary, and that will only happen if human rights issues are addressed, as sanctions relief and foreign investment will not be secured without attention to these issues.
Recommendations for the U.S. administration, Congress, and the 2020 presidential candidates for supporting democracy, human rights and rule of law in North Korea include:
- Reconsidering the policy truism that avoiding human rights issues during negotiations with North Korea is important to reaching a deal, as so far that has not proved to be the case.
- Developing and empowering working-level channels of communication and a coherent strategy on North Korea so that consistent and serious diplomatic efforts can take place.
- Reorienting the U.S. approach to encompass a series of phased-in, reversible steps on both sides rather than insisting on full denuclearization up front.
- Appointing a new Special Envoy for North Korea at the State Department, as the position has been vacant since late 2019, as well as the congressionally-mandated Special Envoy for North Korean human rights abuses, as the position has been vacant during the current administration.
- Continuing to foster congressional support for reaching a denuclearization deal with North Korea that also addresses human rights concerns as a means of maintaining a consistent U.S. policy position across election cycles.
- Taking advantage, to the extent possible, of the fact that Kim Jong-un set high expectations among the North Korean people of having successful outcomes from his engagement with President Trump, and the possibility that the resulting disappointment could open entry points for engagement with dissidents.
- Engaging with South Korea as a partner in negotiations with North Korea, and soliciting China’s cooperation to the extent possible.
- Encouraging Congress to hold hearings to review U.S. strategy toward North Korea with the aim of rethinking current laws and brainstorming new approaches.
* The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group is a nonpartisan initiative bringing together academic and think tank experts and practitioners from NGOs and previous Democratic and Republican administrations, seeking to elevate the importance of democracy and human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy. It is convened by Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the positions of individual members of the group or of their organizations.