Fill out the brief form below for access to the free report.

Human Rights Must Be on the Table in Hanoi

Bush Institute Senior Fellow Victor Cha shares why addressing human rights is critical to denuclearizing North Korea.

Article by Victor Cha February 22, 2019 //   8 minute read

Five years after the UN Commission of Inquiry report created a groundswell of international attention to human rights abuses in North Korea, the momentum to bring human dignity to the citizens of the country has dissipated. The UN Security Council failed to renew a debate on the issue in its chambers last year.  Since the start of US-Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) diplomacy in early 2018, the United States seems disinterested in the issue, deeming it distracting at best and disruptive at worst to the core nuclear diplomacy.  And the Republic of Korea has cut over 90 percent of its government support for human rights programs to help their northern brethren. 

The upcoming summit meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam on Feb. 27 to 28 presents an opportunity to reenergize the issue internationally and in ways beneficial to U.S. interests.  While tangible progress fulfilling the denuclearization pledges made by North Korea in Singapore should be the priority of U.S. diplomacy, this goal cannot be achieved without substantive addressing of human rights issues.   


Four principles should propel the approach to human rights for DPRK: 

  • Integrating human rights into our strategy is not a choice, but a necessity. As the only true beacon of human freedom in the world, the United States has a moral obligation to place human rights at the top of its agenda with all partners.  Not doing this has already encouraged regimes to take liberties with gross infringements on human dignity (e.g. Uighur prison camps in China). 
  • The denuclearization and human rights agendas are inextricably intertwined. Whether through its forced labor exports or commerce related to sanctioned entities, revenues gained from human rights abuses help to finance the regime’s proliferation activities. Furthermore, respect for international norms, such as the non-proliferation efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), of which the DPRK was a member and which includes 171 countries, and the International Declaration of Human Rights, of which the DPRK is still a member, legitimize and internationalize the commitments the DPRK needs to make.  Failure to keep human rights commitments undermines denuclearization commitments.  
  • Calling for human rights improvements in North Korea strengthens U.S. leverage in the negotiations. As North Korea’s reaction to the groundswell of international sentiment in 2014 displayed, the regime senses vulnerability on this issue like no other. 
  • Mainstreaming human rights in our North Korea agenda is politically smart. Given the Congress’s unanimous support of recent North Korean human rights legislation, there is little likelihood that Congress will support any US-DPRK agreements coming out of presidential summitry that does not address human rights. Moreover, sanctions lifting will not be possible under U.S. law without certifications on human rights improvements. 


To integrate human rights is to support U.S. objectives as specified in the 2018 Singapore Summit declaration.  There is a common misperception that including human rights distracts from the main issues or “offends” the North Koreans from participating in negotiations. This is incorrect for three reasons. 

  • First, to address human rights is critical to achieving the two leaders’ commitment to a peace declaration and a transformed US-DPRK relationship. It is inconceivable that we could achieve normalized political relations without an improvement in the human condition. 
  • Second, to achieve the goal of final and fully verifiable denuclearization requires a more transparent and regime-compliant North Korean system. The success of a verification protocol for denuclearization would require a more open society than exists in North Korea today. Moreover, improvements in the human condition would make a denuclearization commitment by the DPRK more credible as it would reflect a historic sign of the leadership’s commitment to real reform and fully joining the community of nations. 
  • Third, to demand human rights improvements is the only realistic way to facilitate the world’s economic development and assistance to North Korea. President Trump has touted the potential for North Korea to become an “economic rocket” if it commits to denuclearization. However, U.S. companies, aid organizations, and international financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) will not, by U.S. law, be able to aid, invest, or trade with the North given human rights abuses in the supply chain. 


In the run-up to the Hanoi summit and in follow-on negotiations to implement the agreements reached in this second leadership summit, the United States must consider concrete, actionable items to mainstream the human rights issue in bilateral relations with Pyongyang. 

  • Demand Rights Up Front. The United States must establish a rights up front approach in future dealings with North Korea, acknowledging that achievement of the normalization, denuclearization, and peace regime objectives of the 2018 Singapore declaration requires an improvement in human rights. 
  • Make a Tangible First Step. The United States must seek an initial tangible step from the Hanoi summit (e.g., cooperation on issues of person with disabilities and other issues which are likely less threatening to the regime) in order to set a new precedent in negotiations and to establish non-nuclear issues for cooperation with the DPRK. 
  • Establish a Longer-Term Dialogue. The United States must establish a human rights dialogue as part of any path to normalization of political relations. This dialogue should seek achievement of specific goals as stated in the UN Commission of Inquiry Report. This dialogue could also be used to help North Korea remedy violations in the supply chain that would prevent private investment. 
  • Appoint a U.S. Human Rights The White House must appoint a Special Envoy for Human Rights as mandated by the Congress, but which has remained unfilled since the last administration. 
  • Resume Humanitarian Assistance. The United States should remove obstacles it has created to limit private NGO humanitarian assistance, should support UN humanitarian efforts, and should consider providing U.S. government aid when appropriate. Such assistance must meet international standards for verification and monitoring. 
  • Set the Bar for Allies and Partners. The United States must signal to China and the ROK that its engagement with North Korea and achievement of the US-DPRK summit objectives of denuclearization and peace on the peninsula is not possible without tangible human rights improvements. China must stop refoulement practices. South Korea must stop suppressing NGO human rights activities. 
  • Set the Broader Playing Field. The human rights initiative is most effective as a global effort. The United States must re-energize the issue in the United Nations by seeking positive votes in the UN Security Council to debate North Korean human rights issues.  The United States should find ways to participate in the DPRK’s Universal Periodic Review in the UN Human Rights Council in 2019.  The ultimate purpose of these and other actions might be to create a Helsinki-like process addressing North Korea in East Asia. 

In the course of denuclearization diplomacy with North Korea over the past three decades, every U.S. administration has said it would not succumb to buying the same horse again. President Trump has broken past policy conventions by engaging in “top-down” summit diplomacy with a country where only one person makes decisions of consequence.  The president could live up to his advertising of a “very different” policy to North Korea by integrating human rights into the diplomacy in ways that support the goal of final and fully verifiable denuclearization.