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Human Rights Still a Missing Piece of the North Korea Puzzle
When it comes to North Korea, does everything boil down to nukes? The United States’ focus on Pyongyang’s illicit weapons program has intensified as missile tests become more frequent and sophisticated, the latest example making headlines over the weekend. The regime’s human rights record, however, receives comparatively little attention. That’s a more serious problem than you might think.
The 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) report established that North Korea’s foundation is a personality cult enforced through fear and systemic human rights violations. This mentality translates to Pyongyang’s dealings with foreign countries, organizations, and individuals. For this reason, North Korea’s human rights abuses and the security threat it poses to the United States are connected.
Last fall, the Bush Institute offered a series of policy recommendations linking both human rights and national security priorities on North Korea, including:
- Focus on slave labor exports. Studies show revenue from North Korean human rights abuses, including the export of slave labor, is used to fund nuclear proliferation activities. Bipartisan Congressional leadership has been good at connecting the dots here, recently passing legislation that sanctions the Kim Regime’s exportation of slave labor and third parties who purchase it.
- Leverage Pyongyang’s accountability anxiety. After the COI report was released, North Korea mobilized its diplomats in an unsuccessful campaign to silence international discourse on the findings. The United States and its allies could use this sensitivity to gain concessions or progress on the nuclear front.
- Encourage Chinese action. Adopt a new orientation toward China that pressures Beijing on nuclear and human rights issues in North Korea, particularly slave labor exports of which China is a consumer. As difficult as this may be, concerted and persistent pressure on the Chinese government by all interlocutors is necessary to sensitize Beijing to international criticism.
Recommendations also emphasized continuing efforts to empower North Koreans by weakening the regime’s control over society and fostering conditions that may facilitate Korean unification:
- Prioritize information flows into North Korea and seek private sector partnerships to innovate this strategy. Despite Pyongyang’s brutal efforts to cocoon the country from foreign media, great demand for content exists. A CSIS study of North Koreans inside North Korea reveals that 91.6 percent of respondents consume foreign media at least once per month, 88 percent find outside information useful, and 83 percent say foreign media has greater impact on their lives than the regime.
- Support North Korean refugees by welcoming them to the United States. This growing community represents another avenue for transforming North Korean society. Refugees strive to be productive citizens in their new homes (South Korea or the United States), but they also empower family back in North Korea by sending them money and information directly. This provides North Koreans greater power to engage in the country’s underground markets and pursue individual interests.
Why does this matter? When the United States confronts Pyongyang’s human rights abuses through policies that stifle illicit funding, hold the Kim regime accountable, and empower the North Korean people, it addresses the root cause of the security threat being posed.
Andrei Sakharov put it simply, “A country that doesn’t respect the rights of its people won’t respect the rights of its neighbors.” Human rights must be a serious component of any comprehensive U.S. strategy on North Korea; ignoring them accepts the status quo of an untrustworthy Kim regime, perpetuates North Korea’s humanitarian crisis, and makes the United States less safe.
Christopher Walsh serves as Senior Program Manager for the Human Freedom and Women's Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. In this role, Christopher manages communications, evaluation, and public policy research projects that advance freedom and democracy in the world. He also develops and implements efforts to make the Bush Institute a welcoming place for today’s generation of dissidents and democracy advocates, overseeing visits for training, inspiration, and insight.
Prior to joining the Bush Institute, Christopher worked with the International Republican Institute in Washington, D.C. As IRI’s program officer for Central and Eastern Europe, he coordinated political party building and civic advocacy programs in the Balkans and Turkey.
A native of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Christopher is a graduate of American University with a B.A. in International Studies. He currently lives in Dallas with his wife and three young children.Full Bio
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