Defectors from North Korea deserve respect. Escaping the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is difficult enough. Getting somewhere safe, most often South Korea, is even harder. In recent years the North has dramatically toughened border controls, while Beijing sends defectors back to the DPRK.
However, though defectors are brave, they understandably are focused on their own experiences. Unsurprisingly, those who have suffered the most under hostile dictatorships tend to advocate fighting those governments to the last American. Washington should not rely upon defectors who were fortunate to escape Pyongyang’s not-so-tender mercies for policy advice.
With the Biden administration focused on domestic issues and devoting what little time it has left to ongoing international controversies—Iran, China, Burma, Russia, Saudi Arabia, to name just a few—the Koreas are anxiously awaiting the conclusion of the administration’s policy review. President Joe Biden could follow President Barack Obama by essentially ignoring the issue, pursue summit diplomacy like President Donald Trump, or break the presidential mold and push serious negotiations.
But to what end?
When Biden took over, North Korean defectors living in America advocated that the new president do something. They didn’t offer specific proposals which might succeed where past efforts failed. They simply but almost uniformly wanted him to just do something.
For instance, Justin Seo of Virginia told the Voice of America that he was disappointed in Trump’s praise for Kim Jong-un. “I would like [Biden] to deal more forcefully” with Pyongyang,” he added. Another Virginian, Charles Kim, wanted the new “administration to seek measures to pressure North Korea so that sanctions on North Korea can become more effective.”
Jake Kim, a defector living in Utah, advocated a change in approach. If Biden “focuses more attention on North Korean human rights, it can lead to a result that grants legitimacy to the people, the residents of North Korea.” In contrast, he believed, “when you ignore human rights and focus on nuclear weapons and Kim Jong-un, it can end up legitimizing Kim Jong-un’s regime.” In his view “the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons will be resolved when human rights issue is resolved first.”
Grace Jo, attending school in Georgia, took a somewhat less political stance. She urged the new administration to listen to North Koreans who want to flee, and “help giving them freedom so there can be more free college students like myself.” Alas, she offered no advice on how to achieve that result.
There long has been a debate over which to emphasize first, denuclearization or human rights. It should surprise no one that those who suffered under oppression are most likely to favor the second. Indeed, that should be expected. Unfortunately, however, putting human rights first makes progress on both issues less likely.
Although some in power in authoritarian regimes are simply cruel, that is not the main reason for repression. Rather, suppressing political and civil liberties is often the chief means for rulers to hold onto power. Moreover, retaining control is almost always the most important objective of any incumbent government, and as such acts as the foundation of its rule.
Thus, attempting to convince Kim Jong-un to relax political restrictions would be naturally viewed as an effort, intentional or not, to oust him. And given Washington’s history of promoting regime change, one could hardly blame Kim for being suspicious. Even if positive inducements were offered, what would be valuable enough to convince him to weaken his hold on power? Especially at a time when the regime appears to be suffering through wrenching and potentially destabilizing hardship. Diplomatic deadlock—with a refusal by the North to engage—would be the far more likely result. In which case attempting to shift to nuclear issues also would likely end up in failure.
The reverse offers a better chance, and almost certainly the only chance, to succeed. Realistically, the DPRK is not likely to denuclearize. The best solution always would have been to halt the nascent program and prevent any weapons development. That plan went off the rails years ago. Today, Pyongyang is believed to have enough fissile material for perhaps three score weapons. Only one nuclear weapons state, South Africa, has ever abandoned an existing arsenal, and that was because of an impending radical transformation of the ruling regime.
Nuclear weapons offer status and security that allied promises cannot. Just ask Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi what he thinks about the conduct of his supposed Western friends after he abandoned his nuclear and missile programs. The most realistic strategy toward the North is to pursue concrete disarmament steps while keeping open the road to denuclearization. Under what circumstance is Kim going to even reduce his weapons? Only if his security concerns are addressed.
No doubt he wants economic development, as he has often said. That would strengthen his own nation’s power and enhance his position accordingly. However, he is unlikely to risk political control for economic gain. So far, the Kim regime has successfully held onto power even through mass famine and death. In 2020 and 2021 he appeared to retain firm control despite essentially having imposed economic sanctions on his own country, ending most trade even with China to protect against the spread of coronavirus. He is likely to continue putting the preservation of his dynasty first.
However, imagine a mix of improved U.S.-North Korea relationship, reduced American military threats, new South-North economic projects, and sanctions relief yielding meaningful DPRK arms control. Perhaps closure of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities, as Kim offered at the Hanoi summit, and reduction in the North Korean military’s front-loaded conventional dispositions near the DMZ. Out of this process could emerge expanded diplomatic contacts and a larger DPRK international presence.
Then the United States and the Republic of Korea would be in a much stronger position to push to expand discussions to include human rights. Historically, few authoritarian regimes have abandoned repression because Washington told them to do so. That approach certainly has not been working with Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, Burma, or anywhere else today. Even America’s nominal friends, think Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Central Asian states, are as (and sometimes more) repressive than Washington’s adversaries.
However, integration into the international system, illustrated by the participation of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, can offer a new avenue for applying pressure on countries to improve their behavior at home. The USSR’s full transformation had to await the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev, but even earlier Soviet officials took international reactions into account. For instance, in 1974 they expelled dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn rather than imprison or kill him.
Kim evidently enjoys the international spotlight and has demonstrated surprising diplomatic skills. Negotiations that drew him further onto the global stage also would expand the opportunity to apply pressure for improved human rights at home. Moreover, the terrible state of human rights in the North makes significant improvements possible without directly threatening Kim’s hold on power. No one expects free elections any time soon, but, say, closing the labor camps would be a major step warranting significant praise and reward. However, such an improvement would be possible only if Kim perceived a relatively safe security environment as well as defensible military balance.
Although North Korean defectors typically do not provide good policy advice regarding the DPRK, they are a useful reminder of the moral stakes in defusing the Korean confrontation. The endless cold war favored by some hawks ensures stasis on human rights as well.
The Biden administration should follow up its predecessor’s emphasis on negotiation and press a balanced initiative that offers improved economic and political relations in exchange for serious disarmament. Perhaps Kim Jong-un will dismiss the bargain. On the other hand, he just might demonstrate that he is different from his father and grandfather. It would be foolish for Washington to lose the opportunity without trying.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World, and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.