Engaging Pyongyang on Human Rights

Posted January 5, 2008

Categories: Articles, Korea

(Editor’s note: The author presented a different version of this paper at the International Symposium on North Korean Human Rights, sponsored by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, in Seoul in October.)

In the evolving U.S. policy toward North Korea, human rights considerations and national security concerns have competed for precedence. During President George W. Bush’s first term, when a more confrontational stance predominated, human rights issues had greater visibility in Washington. For instance, Bush emphasized human rights language when describing the authoritarian political structure and “evil” intent of the North Korean regime. In this atmosphere, Congress passed the North Korea Human Rights Act in 2004 to promote the human rights of North Koreans through an increase in the flow of information to the country, welcoming more North Korean refugees to the United States, and appointing a special envoy on the issue.

In Bush’s second term — and particularly after the Republican Party’s political losses in the 2006 midterm elections — the administration executed a mid-course correction in its North Korea policy. It abandoned its non-negotiable position on no bilateral discussions with Pyongyang and no interim rewards on the path toward the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programs. During this about-face on North Korea policy, human rights issues took a back seat to the central national security preoccupation: namely, the nonproliferation goal of eliminating North Korea’s nuclear programs.

Meanwhile, the human rights situation in North Korea didn’t change in any significant way — it remains deplorable — nor did U.S. policy on North Korean human rights change in any significant regard. Bush still reportedly takes a personal interest in the topic, symbolically represented by a recent piano concert by a North Korean defector at the State Department. What changed was the relative importance of human rights vis-á-vis security considerations.

Hearing from the Special Envoy

This shift in policy toward North Korea from confrontation to engagement meant a shift in primary actor. Christopher Hill, the chief negotiator in the Six Party Talks, began to shape North Korea policy far more than hardliners like former UN ambassador John Bolton (who left the administration after the 2006 elections). Except for the times when journalists went to Bolton for an incendiary critique of administration policy, the issue of human rights seemed to disappear from the public realm. This lack of public discussion prompted conservative commentator Nicholas Eberstadt to ask in December 2007: “Have you heard from President Bush’s special envoy for human rights in North Korea over the past year? Neither has anybody else.”

When Special Envoy for Human Rights Jay Lefkowitz decided to speak out shortly thereafter, he quickly encountered pushback from his own colleagues in the Bush administration. In a January 17, 2008 presentation at the American Enterprise Institute, where Eberstadt introduced him, Lefkowitz called into question the lack of inclusion of human rights in the Six Party Talks, complained about South Korea’s policies toward the North, and dismissed North Korea’s seriousness about negotiating. The State Department expressed its displeasure with Lefkowitz’s evaluation by removing his statement from its website. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said sternly that “[Lefkowitz] doesn’t know what’s going on in the six-party talks, and he certainly has no say on what American policy will be in the six-party talks.” The administration that appointed Lefkowitz in 2004 was clearly unhappy with his mandate in 2008.

With nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the United States slowly moving forward, the issue of human rights hangs in the balance. Congress reauthorized the North Korean Human Rights Act in September. U.S. human rights activists have shifted their focus beyond congressional strategies to new fields of international activism. And the public awaits the Obama administration’s policy on North Korea. The new administration should consider integrating human rights and economic engagement in an approach that goes “beyond demonization,” in scholar Katharine Moon’s phrase, and that can improve the everyday human security of North Koreans in their benighted country.

The administration’s focus on the nuclear issue to the seeming exclusion of all else generated considerable pushback from Congress and a range of NGO actors. At the congressional level, House conservatives introduced a resolution in September 2007 that called on the president to make any non-humanitarian aid to North Korea contingent on North Korea’s “substantial progress” in the realm of human rights, including abductees, family reunification, labor camp reform, and decriminalization of political expression. Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) held up the appointment of Kathleen Stephens as ambassador to South Korea because neither she nor Rice satisfactorily answered his questions about the specific U.S. “asks” on North Korean human rights.

The Bush administration’s announcement that it would remove North Korea from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list in June 2008 prompted congressional opponents to express dismay at the failure to include human rights as part of the conditions. “I am particularly disheartened that the Administration failed to link our country’s concessions to the improvement in human rights for the North Korean people,” declared Brownback. “It is unconscionable to ignore clear evidence of massive concentration camps, systematic starvation, and official oppression, and instead to lift sanctions against the regime of Kim Jong Il.”

Displeasure with the relative unimportance of the human rights issue also shaped the congressional discussion around the reauthorization of the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2008. The reauthorization preserved the main elements of the 2004 law such as the amount of money allocated ($24 million) and the focus on radio transmissions into North Korea. But two important differences emerged: the precise rank of the special envoy and whether the position should exercise authority over refugee issues. These questions of authority reflected some congressional concerns that the implementation of the original law was inadequate. The position of the special envoy was filled with a part-time appointment, Jay Lefkowitz. And the rate of North Korean refugee resettlement has been very low. The U.S. government granted asylum to the first six North Koreans in May 2006. Three more arrived that year for a total of nine. In 2007, 22 North Koreans arrived, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement database. To date, fewer than 70 North Korean refugees have legally resettled in the United States — out of a total of 150,000 refugees over the last four years.

The reauthorization bumps up the special envoy to ambassadorial rank and makes clear that it’s a full-time job. It also provides the newly empowered envoy with some responsibility over refugee policy. Whether the new envoy will exercise his or her mandate to give human rights greater visibility in U.S. policy toward North Korea will depend a great deal on the background, skills, and personality of the appointee. In theory, however, the higher rank and expanded authority could translate into a more prominent place at the table in multilateral and bilateral negotiations with North Korea and stronger advocacy for higher rates of admission for North Korean refugees.

Highlighting Violations

Meanwhile, U.S. activist organizations have pursued a number of different strategies to highlight human rights violations inside North Korea and effect change within the country. The first tier of activism focused on gathering and distributing information about conditions inside North Korea. Activist organizations have produced reports on the prison and labor camp system, food and human rights, religious freedom, and other issues. The second tier focused on legislative efforts, principally the North Korea Human Rights Act. Additionally, an attempt was made to pressure China into changing its policy toward North Korean refugees by threatening it with trade sanctions if it didn’t stop forcible repatriation. But that legislative attempt failed because a broad-based coalition never came together to support it.

The third tier has focused on international mechanisms. Activists have worked through the European Union and the UN system, which has yielded several resolutions, including those by the Commission on Human Rights and the UN General Assembly. The UN Special Rapporteur has cooperated with nongovernmental organizations in his attempts to gather information on the situation inside North Korea. Activists are now exploring other international legal levers. A recent report evaluates the potential to bring a case against North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC) on three separate charges (genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes). It concludes that gathering evidence would be difficult and North Korea hasn’t, in any case, ratified the ICC statute, but such a process could raise awareness of the issue. It similarly evaluates bringing North Korea to the UN Security Council under the “threat to peace” doctrine — on a range of charges including human rights violations, refugee flows, drug trafficking and counterfeiting — and concludes that the publicity value would be high, even if the likelihood of generating UN action is rather slim. Another report, entitled “Failure to Protect” and commissioned by Vaclav Havel, Kjell Magne Bondevik, and Elie Wiesel, similarly recommends that the UN Secretary General establish a committee to look into whether intervention into North Korea, under the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, is warranted.

Finally, there has been direct action. Several U.S. NGOs work with North Korean refugees on the Chinese border. They support radio transmissions into North Korea. And they do missionary work in an attempt to evangelize not only among refugees but directly in North Korea itself. South Korean evangelicals have sent Bibles into North Korea by balloon and floated Christian messages in by sea. They have smuggled mini-Bibles across the border from China for use in underground churches. South Korean missionaries have evangelized among North Korean refugees, including those who return to North Korea, putting them at much greater risk. “Many martyrs, perhaps dozens, have spilled their blood in the North,” reports Reverend Joseph Park, the mission director of the Christian Council of Korea.

Regime Change and Religion

Given the Bush administration’s decision to negotiate seriously with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, the regime-change option has lost considerable political credibility in Washington. However, many still believe that any negotiations with North Korea are a form of appeasement — according to Vice President Dick Cheney’s infamous dictum that the United States doesn’t “negotiate with evil; we defeat evil” — and that there can be no meaningful improvement in human rights in North Korean under the current regime. Those who hold to this position oppose initiatives that would help North Koreans in the here and now, and favor instead a long-term strategy of bringing down the current regime in North Korea, which would perhaps help them at some point in the future. According to this view, any instrument that can weaken the government — from below through dissident movements or from above through international censure — is worth supporting.

To a certain extent, Special Envoy Lefkowitz leans toward this philosophy when he asserts that “human rights can be a means to a greater end,” namely a transformation in North Korea equivalent to the fall of the Soviet Union. Activists who convey anti-government leaflets to North Korea eagerly embrace the regime-change option and urge North Korean soldiers to “turn your rifle barrels towards Dictator Kim.” Deputy Special Envoy Christian Whiton echoed these sentiments when he recently quoted the Book of John at a press conference in Seoul: “‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,’” he said. “Indeed, the truth can liberate and encourage.” His choice of a biblical passage linked to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the connection of that to liberation — through regime change — could be read as a coded merging of the two evangelical messages, one connected to human rights and the other to religious conversion.

The overlap between Christian evangelism and human rights activism is sometimes considerable, not only in terms of organizational links but also in philosophical outlook. What might seem irresponsible from a humanitarian vantage point — namely, putting people inside North Korea at a greater risk of harm — becomes instead a core operating assumption. Giving a person a Bible or a video camera to bring back to North Korea in order to disseminate information is justified either according to the greater good of salvation in the next world or for the greater good of liberation in this one. It is one thing to work with people who embrace either of these missions and voluntarily court martyrdom. This is, after all, a contract freely entered into. It is quite another to assume that the greater part of the population shares your vision of either a Christian society or a liberal polity. Human rights workers are often infected with missionary zeal and lose sight of the fact that perceptions of human rights are culturally bound.

The Future of Linkage

If linking human rights to the nuclear issue is a non-starter, which even the Bush administration acknowledges, then how can human rights be integrated into U.S. policy toward North Korea. One option is to discuss human rights in all negotiations with North Korea — except on nuclear disarmament. Thus, Christopher Hill recently promised Senator Brownback — in testimony designed to unblock the appointment of Kathleen Stephens — that he would invite Lefkowitz to all discussions that are not focused on disarmament. Since there are no other discussions taking place, however, this was a somewhat disingenuous offer.

A second option would be to fold discussions on human rights into bilateral negotiations over normalization of political relations. In this situation, North Korea would have to meet certain conditions — some of them connected to covenants it has already signed — in order to qualify for recognition. A third option would be not to link human rights to recognition per se but to agreements that could potentially flow out of recognition, such as most favored nation trade status. A fourth option, which is not mutually exclusive, would be to address human rights in a multilateral and multi-issue framework patterned on the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE).

All of these options have the disadvantage of being relatively long term. The prospect of a CSCE-like mechanism emerging any time soon in Northeast Asia is dim, and any such mechanisms will have to somehow get around the suspicions of North Korea, China, and now Russia of anything with a “Helsinki” label, which connotes to them a regime-change intention. The United States has been ambiguous about when it would extend diplomatic recognition to North Korea — at some point along the way to denuclearization, only after complete and irreversible dismantlement, or only after another set of conditions are met. In any of these cases, normalization does not seem immediately forthcoming (even though normalization sooner rather than later could have considerable benefits in terms of establishing a framework for wide-ranging discussions with North Korea).

For the moment, human rights are rhetorically integrated into overall U.S. policy toward North Korea but practically separate. Inviting the U.S. special envoy to future non-disarmament discussions, incorporating human rights into future normalization negotiations, and creating parallel tracks in any future multilateral security mechanism are useful suggestions, but they are all in the future.

To address human rights questions now, there must first be a broader understanding of how economic and social change in North Korea is both strengthening and compromising human security inside the country. The marked transformation of the country — largely from below but with important top-down changes from the government — has enabled a few to accumulate great wealth, helped some to attain sustainable incomes, and consigned a large number of people to much greater uncertainty. In a situation in which three-quarters of the population have reduced their food intake as a result of current food shortages, according to a recent World Food Program survey, the most important contribution to food security is the provision of humanitarian aid, farming inputs such as fertilizer and seed, and technology transfer to upgrade agricultural facilities. This assistance is necessary to stabilize the country and preserve access to food, a critical human right. As importantly, the United States, Japan, and South Korea, among other countries, must help stimulate the flow of investment into the North Korea.

The Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint venture between North and South Korea located just north of the De-Militarized Zone, demonstrates how economic engagement and human rights can go hand in hand. From the preliminary data collected, a clear picture is beginning to emerge. Rather than being worked to death, the Kaesong employees are, through access to higher wages and better food, being restored to health. North Korean workers at one factory were able to work for only 5.5 hours at first; after a year of improved diet — lunches provided by South Korean firms, food provided during night shifts — they can now work 6.5 hours. Labor regulations provide for 48-hour work weeks, overtime pay, vacation, maternity leave, and so forth. As such, the project meets basic food security needs and establishes important labor standards that, in practice, exceed conditions at other North Korean workplaces. Conversations about labor rights can take place in this very specific case, rather than abstractly or as part of international conventions that are frequently observed in the breach.

The Kaesong Industrial Complex isn’t the only example. A similar argument could be made for a range of engagement opportunities. Investments into cell phones and Internet, even if initially restricted to a small circle of North Koreans, will eventually open up the flow of information in the society. Agricultural development programs, as opposed to humanitarian aid, can help ensure food security for the country. Trainings conducted abroad for North Korean officials — again a limited, elite strategy — will create a tier of reform-minded bureaucrats who can champion and administer projects of international cooperation. These trainings have in the past included human rights issues and can be tailored to provide North Korean officials concrete assistance in meeting human rights standards, particularly around the conventions the country has already signed.


For human rights concerns and engagement to work together, interaction with North Korea has to be taken seriously. It cannot simply be conceived of as a vehicle for the communication of grievances and concerns. Except for isolated examples such as Kaesong, however, engagement has been fitful, discontinuous, and fraught with suspicions on all sides. This is particularly true for the United States. Except for Christopher Hill and his colleagues, a handful of humanitarian NGOs, and an even smaller number of U.S. businesses, North Korea remains as detached from the United States as it was at the height of the Cold War. Name-and-shame tactics work in such a disengaged environment, at least in terms of generating media attention if not necessarily in changing North Korean policy. But integrating human rights issues into an engagement framework requires serious commitment to engagement as well.

It also requires recognizing that human rights dialogue is a two-way street. During the CSCE meetings, Soviet officials raised U.S. human rights abuses on several occasions. Given the U.S. position on the death penalty, extraordinary rendition and torture, and habeas corpus, Washington has to be prepared to listen as well as criticize. North Korea wants to enter into this process as a partner, not as a supplicant and certainly not as a child to be scolded. It is rather extraordinary that a U.S. organization, the U.S. Committee on Human Rights in North Korea, which is aided by a U.S. law firm, would propose to use international conventions against North Korea — such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child — that the United States itself has not ratified.

Now that the first crisis over verification of North Korea’s nuclear program has been averted and the Six Party Talks are set to resume this month, human rights will inevitably return to the table as one of several issues. There is a broad consensus in the United States that human rights must be part of the larger bargain with North Korea. But there are some subtle differences in the approaches. In 2004, for instance, chief negotiator Christopher Hill declared that “human rights are not a weapon to be used against a country. They are not an effort to topple a regime.” Yet even as he distinguished his position from the regime-change camp, he insisted that “the North Koreans need to understand that, if they want to join the international community, a human rights record is definitely part of the price of the admission ticket.” In congressional testimony in 2008, Hill amplified this point: “The issue of human rights will be a key element of the normalization process. We will continue to press the DPRK for the kind of meaningful progress that will be necessary for the DPRK to join the international community.”

To say that an improved human rights record is a ticket into the international community for North Korea separates the terms too starkly. North Korea’s human rights situation will change through engagement with the international community. If North Korea views human rights only instrumentally, as a price it has to pay, it will never take human rights seriously in any fundamental or institutional sense. And if North Korea sees that only it is held accountable to international norms of human rights and that only it is required to accede to international covenants, then the prospects for improving the day-to-day lives of so many North Koreans will be very dim indeed.

FPIF, November 20, 2008

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