Why North Korea's Human Rights Abuses are Being Ignored

April 11, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: North KoreaKim Jong UnWarNuclearMissileOtto Warmbier

Why North Korea's Human Rights Abuses are Being Ignored

Despite the reactions of the United States and South Korea to the North's human-rights abuses, North Koreans are left behind.

Human rights form a pillar of most democratic countries’ foreign policies and play a major role in their international relations. When it comes to totalitarian North Korea, which is among the worst human-rights abusers in modern history, the United States and South Korea under the Trump and Moon administrations respectively have employed similar but different strategies. The allies have engaged North Korea on human rights for political purposes, with the Trump administration highlighting abuses to help pressure North Korea to the negotiating table, before dropping the subject once diplomacy appears possible, and the Moon administration avoiding the subject to maintain the delicate North-South détente.

In general, the Trump administration has not made human rights a major focus of its foreign policy, but it has been willing to strategically leverage human-rights issues when dealing with North Korea.

The first major statement to come from the Trump administration regarded the tragic death of Otto Warmbier, a student detained and likely tortured in North Korea. Six months later, after North Korea’s record year of missile and nuclear weapons testing, President Donald Trump ramped up human-rights pressure on North Korea during his first State of the Union address, in which he called out North Korea’s abuses and highlighted the plight of North Korean defectors through the example of Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector who was met with thunderous applause when he raised he crutches in a triumph of freedom. A few days later, President Trump met with North Korean defectors who relayed their sufferings under the Kim regime.

Vice President Mike Pence also highlighted North Korea’s human-rights abuses in a speech he made before arriving in South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympics. He noted that “an estimated one hundred thousand North Korean citizens labor in modern-day gulags” and that “[t]hose who raise their voices in dissent are imprisoned, tortured, and even murdered.” The vice president even brought Otto Warmbier’s father, Fred Warmbier, to the Winter Olympics at PyeongChang as a guest—a potent symbol to the North Korean athletes, spectators, and officials in attendance.

Despite the Trump administration’s posturing, its focus on North Korean human rights seemed to fall by the wayside once the Olympics began and a diplomatic breakthrough between Pyeongyang and Washington appeared possible. Now that President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have agreed to meet for a summit in May, the first such meeting between an American and North Korean leader, the Trump administration’s use of human rights, in addition to its maximum-pressure campaign to bring North Korea to the negotiation table, appears to have paid off.

In the case of the Moon administration, South Korea has similarly used human rights for political purposes, albeit in a different direction. After his attendance at the United States’ 2018 State of the Union address, Ji Seong-ho failed to gain long lasting attention Korean language media to have the possibility of meaningful implications for North Korean human rights. Beyond the international example of Ji Seong-ho, the Moon administration was silent on North Korean human-rights issues before and after the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. The failure to implement South Korea’s North Korean Human Rights Act of 2016 (NKHRA) is just one example of President Moon’s method of dealing with North Korean human rights.

The NKHRA is meant to improve and protect North Korean human rights in North Korea and abroad. According to articles 10–12 of the act, the North Korea Human Rights Foundation is obliged to be established under the Ministry of Unification. The foundation would investigate the realities of human rights and call for humanitarian aid for North Koreans. In another critical role, the foundation would develop policies and recommendation for the South Korean government. However, two years since its passage, the act has yet to be implemented and no progress has been shown to implement it. The major obstacle to implementation is due to the ruling Democratic Party’s procrastination in recommending members to the foundation’s board of directors.

Beyond the NKHRA, Moon’s government has shown little passion for the human-rights issue, further exemplified by the reduction of staff to a single member and budget cuts for the department working on North Korean human rights at the National Human Rights Commission of Korea.

Human-rights activists and conservatives in South Korea have criticized President Moon and have accused him of ignoring human rights in order to avoid provoking Kim Jong-un. They further contend that President Moon has set aside, or even sacrificed, North Korean human rights to maintain a stable inter-Korea relationship. The Moon administration has certainly achieved its goal of avoiding a more confrontational relationship with North Korea in recent months, possibly in part due to a lack of emphasis on North Korean human rights.

The United States and South Korea have both used North Korea’s human-rights issues as political tools, but to achieve different objectives. Washington has spoken up about the Kim regime’s brutality to pressure Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table. On the other hand, Seoul has stayed silent to avoid tensions, build trust, and establish dialogue with Pyeongyang—an angry Kim Jong-un would be detrimental in South Korea’s point of view. Despite achieving their political goals, neither U.S. nor South Korean responses are for the sake of North Koreans. In the middle of two counties’ different reactions to human rights, North Koreans are left behind.

Min hee Jo is an Asan Fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a student at Pusan National University.

Quinn Marschik is the assistant director at the Center for the National Interest.

Image: Otto Frederick Warmbier (3rd R), a University of Virginia student who has been detained in North Korea since early January, attends a news conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo February 29, 2016. Warmbier was detained for trying to steal a propaganda slogan from his Pyongyang hotel and has confessed to "severe crimes" against the state, the North's official media said on Monday. Warmbier, 21, was detained before boarding his flight to China over an unspecified incident at his hotel, his tour agency told Reuters in January. Mandatory credit REUTERS/Kyodo