The Korea Herald


[Andrew Wolman] Human rights and North Korea talks

By Korea Herald

Published : April 25, 2018 - 17:43

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Human rights activists can be forgiven if they show less than complete enthusiasm for the upcoming summit meetings between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his South Korean and American counterparts. It is not just the distinct possibility of failure that they fear, although there is that. There is also the prospect that even if the talks succeed in lowering peninsular tensions or -- in a best-case scenario -- bringing a peace treaty and denuclearization, they will do so at the cost of legitimizing one of the world’s most brutal regimes and perpetually avoiding confrontation on human rights abuses. These concerns were voiced in a recent joint letter from a broad group of nongovernmental organizations urging President Moon not to allow human rights issues to be sidelined or upstaged by weapons proliferation concerns.

There is certainly some validity in these worries. Many human rights advocates look back with some dismay on the policies of the Sunshine Era, when North Korean abuses were regularly ignored by South Korean officials in the interests of furthering dialog on peaceful unification. To a certain extent, this pattern appears to be repeating itself.

Moon Jae-in has refused to appoint a North Korean Human Rights Ambassador during his first year in office, and has yet to establish the North Korea Human Rights Foundation, as mandated by the 2016 North Korean Human Rights Act. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha -- herself a former UN human rights officer -- has confirmed that human rights will not be on the agenda for the Moon-Kim summit.

Nor is there much hope that President Trump will press for human rights reforms. While he has spoken out against North Korean abuses and indeed implemented human rights-based sanctions against the regime, these actions can only be seen as instrumental to his security objectives. With his “America First” agenda and encouragement of other strongmen (such as Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines), there seems little likelihood of Trump’s standing up for the rights of North Koreans if doing so in any way impedes other negotiating goals.

From a broader perspective, however, I would argue that the human rights implications of this new period of dialog are significant -- and largely positive.

First, there will very likely be limited humanitarian gestures that emerge out of these negotiations to establish good will, such as the release of detained Americans and South Koreans, agreement to restart family reunions, and the provision of information on the fate of abductees. While these gestures would not address the root problem of North Korean treatment of its own citizens, they will promote the human rights of those affected and their families: the right to information, the right to a family life and the right not to be unfairly detained.

Second, to the extent that the talks are accompanied by economic exchanges and an easing of sanctions, this will improve economic and social rights. To be sure, North Korea is not in as dire economic straits as it was 10 or 20 years ago. Yet there is still suffering. According to UNICEF, an estimated 200,000 North Korean children suffer from acute malnutrition and 3.5 million North Koreans lack access to safe drinking water. Easing sanctions will help directly, by facilitating the work of those UN agencies currently in the country and allowing humanitarian organizations from the US and South Korea to operate in the country. More importantly, an end to sanctions will encourage the trade and investment that is needed to lift the North Korean economy to self-sufficiency. While this may not directly affect civil and political rights issues, it will certainly help fulfill the right to food, right to health care and other economic rights.

Third, increased contacts between North Korea and the rest of the world will lead to greater awareness of the value of democratic freedoms enjoyed elsewhere. Human rights activists have long argued that bringing information into North Korea will be the best way to promote long-term change. Simply put, the brainwashing necessary to maintain obedience to the Kim family is difficult to sustain if people are aware of the outside world -- including outside views on rights and democracy. This awareness will grow as economic, social and political contacts are developed.

Fourth, should negotiations really lead to denuclearization in exchange for some type of security guarantees and normalized place in international society, human rights would be positively affected in a range of ways. North Korea could take the money that has until now been used for missile and nuclear weapons development, and instead invest it in fulfilling its citizens’ social and economic rights. The regime would no longer be able to justify its rights abuses on the need to be on a permanent war footing in face of the American threat. Perhaps most importantly, a peace regime would in itself will boost the rights of all people in Northeast Asia to live free from the fear of imminent nuclear annihilation. It is worth bearing in mind that the freedom from fear was one of Franklin Roosevelt’s original four freedoms from the beginning of the human rights era, and there is nothing in the world more predictably and comprehensively destructive of all types of rights than armed conflict.

These benefits would accrue without a negotiator ever feeling the need to utter the term “human rights.” To be sure, negotiating with a tyrant is never an ideal course of action: legitimization of the Kim regime would bring hope to rights abusers in other parts of the world. And clearly it would be desirable for negotiators to successfully induce North Korea to release political prisoners and re-engage with UN human rights mechanisms. Human rights activists are right to press for such items to be included on the agenda. But if those results are not forthcoming -- and few expect that they will be -- then it would not mean that the process is a failure from a human rights perspective. Rather, a successful deal on denuclearization and security would quite assuredly also be a net gain for human rights.

Andrew Wolman
Andrew Wolman is a professor at the Graduate School of International and Area Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. -- Ed.