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Biden’s NK human rights agenda could cause clash with Seoul

North Korean flag (AFP-Yonhap)
North Korean flag (AFP-Yonhap)

Over the past few years, North Korea policy has not featured human rights on the front burner -- either in Seoul or in Washington. 

This is because the North’s human rights situation, despite its direness, was viewed as a less pressing issue than the security threats posed by Pyongyang with its ever-expanding nuclear and missile programs. Furthermore, both former US President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in had refrained from addressing rights abuses -- which Pyongyang flatly denies -- so as not to jeopardize the headline-grabbing summits and nuclear diplomacy. 

But with US President Joe Biden vowing to stand up for human rights and democracy around the world, North Korea’s human rights violations could emerge high on the agenda for Washington in its policy toward the reclusive regime. 

This raises concerns for Moon, who had largely left human rights issues on the sidelines in the interests of rapprochement with Pyongyang. Experts say Washington could press Seoul to tackle the matter jointly. And if Seoul is reluctant, their differing stances could lead to friction between the allies. 

According to a new report by the United Nations released last week, political prison camps still exist and crimes against humanity continue in the North -- including murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, persecution on political grounds and enforced disappearances. 

“The United States is committed to placing human rights at the center of our foreign policy,” a US State Department spokesperson told Voice of America last week, adding that Washington would stand united with “like-minded partners” in calling out human rights abuses and holding those responsible to account.

As part of its ongoing policy review on North Korea, the Biden administration will “carefully consider the country’s egregious human rights record and how to promote respect for human rights in the closed country,” it added. 

A proactive stance on human rights from Washington can be expected under the Biden presidency, said Park Won-gon, a professor of international relations at Handong Global University, stressing that denuclearization, sanctions relief and human rights are all intertwined. 

“In order for the US sanctions against the North to be lifted, progress on human rights is required,” he said, citing the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016, which stipulates the criteria to terminate sanctions against the regime. Under the law, significant progress on releasing political prisoners, ceasing the repression of peaceful political activities and repatriating abducted citizens are among the prerequisites for the lifting of sanctions. 

“The Biden administration is aware that Seoul has not been raising the human rights issue,” he said. “Because Washington puts emphasis on restoring the alliance, it will try not to reveal any kind of discord between the allies on the surface. But it will demand Seoul to change its stance on human rights, possibly less publicly through unofficial channels.”

Hong Min, a senior researcher at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification, echoed a similar view: that Washington will call on Seoul to join its human rights agenda, but in subtler and more diplomatic ways. 

“Washington will respect the alliance, and such issue could be brought up during the working-level talks,” he said.

Hong added that friction when dealing with human rights is inevitable, due to the different approaches of the two allies. 

“Seoul considers the North Korea problem a security and diplomacy issue, while Washington could take a more value-oriented, comprehensive stance that includes tackling human rights and advancing democracy, in addition to denuclearization,” said Hong. 

Washington is also reviewing whether to restore the position of special envoy on North Korean human rights, which was last held by Robert King from 2009 to 2017, according to VOA. Trump -- who critics say used human rights as an instrument for denuclearization talks and later neglected the issue -- had not appointed anyone to the post, which is in charge of coordinating and promoting human rights in North Korea. 

“It’s highly likely that Biden will reinstate the position, who will represent Washington, hold hearings on the violations and bring up the issue at the UN and on other international stage,” said Park. “The South Korean government also has a counterpart, an ambassador for human rights. Seoul needs to consider this option as well.” 

The Moon government has yet to name an ambassador for North Korean human rights since the inaugural Ambassador Lee Jung-hoon’s term ended in 2017, despite the fact that it is stipulated under the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2016. 

Other mandates under the North Korea Human Rights Act have not been fulfilled under the Moon administration, including the establishment of the North Korean Human Rights Foundation, which has been stalled as the ruling Democratic Party put off recommending board members to set up the foundation. 

Friction between the allies was already there, since Seoul introduced legislation late last year to stop the cross-border launch of balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang leaflets, money and goods into North Korea. The law, set to take effect in late March, drew backlash from international human rights groups, officials and some US lawmakers, who said it violates freedom of speech and criminalizes humanitarian outreach to the communist regime. 

Observers are concerned that such discrepancies between the allies could hinder their joint efforts to tackle the North’s denuclearization. It could also put the brakes on Moon’s inter-Korean engagement efforts, as some of the issues require coordination with Washington. 

“Washington and Seoul should avoid clashing over North Korean human rights,” said Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “The US and South Korea can speak with one voice regarding humanitarian engagement to benefit the North Korean people, while making clear that peace and transformation of diplomatic relations will require both denuclearization and adherence to the rule of law.”

By Ahn Sung-mi (
Korea Herald Youtube