Beijing and Moscow share responsibility for many of North Korea’s human rights violations

Learn more about Victor Cha.
Victor Cha
Senior Fellow
George W. Bush Institute
Learn more about Joseph Kim.
Joseph Kim
Joseph Kim
Program Manager, Global Policy and Expert-in-Residence
George W. Bush Institute

After Grace Jo lost her father, grandmother, and two younger brothers to starvation in North Korea, she decided to take drastic action: She slipped across the border into China because she wanted to survive.

But Chinese officials caught her many times and forcibly repatriated her back to North Korea, a practice known as refoulment. It’s one example of how the Chinese government helps the North Korean regime stay in power by facilitating its subjugation of the North Korean people.

Jo was one of the lucky ones. She ultimately managed to flee both North Korea and China and find a new life in the United States, where she eventually received a Lindsay Lloyd North Korea Freedom Scholarship from the George W. Bush Institute to study interior design. But the situation for those left behind in North Korea has only worsened, exacerbated by the authoritarian leaders in Russia and China.

Beijing and Moscow regularly facilitate North Korea’s human trafficking, transnational repression, and forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees because of a desire to maintain good relations with the North Korean regime, make an economic profit, and align against the West on matters like the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Importing forced North Korean labor also supports the regime’s nuclear weapons program. In the United Nations, they help Pyongyang evade international sanctions and human rights obligations and co-opt U.N. entities to discourage initiatives advancing North Korean human rights.

This alliance of authoritarians was on display this month when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un expressed unconditional support for Moscow at a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. U.S. and South Korean officials are concerned this could lead to arms deals in which North Korea supplies Russia with ammunition for its war against Ukraine while North Korea receives advanced weapons technology and economic and political aid from Russia.

The United States and the international community must devise ways to put pressure on the North Korean regime to improve its human rights record, while also holding China and Russia responsible for their enabling actions.

The Biden Administration should begin by integrating human rights into a comprehensive North Korea policy, particularly on  security issues where the human condition in North Korea has been an afterthought.

A recent positive step was a trilateral agreement between the United States, South Korea, and Japan which focused on deterring Chinese and North Korean aggression but also acknowledged the human rights component. The three nations’ leaders for the first time jointly committed to Korean unification. In the interim, they called for improving human rights in North Korea, including civil liberties and the return of Korean prisoners of war and Japanese abductees.

Also important was the appointment this summer of Julie Turner as U.S. Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, a position that had been vacant over two administrations. She, South Korean Ambassador Shin-wha Lee, and U.N. Special Envoys Elizabeth Salmón and Tomoya Obokata should work to bring new attention to North Korean human rights violations and reinvigorate international efforts to oppose them. In particular, they should take on China’s and Russia’s roles in shielding North Korean human rights abuses.

Both the administration and Congress must also double down on their commitment to sanctions.

The administration should step up enforcement of laws such as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). It creates a so-called “rebuttable presumption” that goods mined, produced or manufactured by North Koreans anywhere in the world were the result of forced labor, unless specifically proven otherwise in court. More rigorous enforcement would enable federal authorities to dole out punishments to China and Russia for using North Korean forced labor.

The administration also should use executive orders and tools provided under the North Korean Sanctions and Policy Enforcement Act (NSKPEA) to designate Russian and Chinese entities involved in human rights violations, as the Obama Administration did.

Champions of this issue in the administration and Congress should push for greater action by using laws that already emphasize linkages to human rights as models. These include CAATSA and the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention, which is more robustly enforced.

Meanwhile, Congress should publicize the situation on the Korean Peninsula with hearings and maintain Congress’ oversight over actions already taken. Additional sanctions should also be considered against Chinese and Russian companies and individuals who employ North Korean forced labor.

International partners should also engage on this issue, working with civil society organizations to raise the profile of North Korean labor abuses. The 10th anniversary of the U.N. Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea next year is the perfect time for Washington and its allies to assess any areas of progress and vulnerability in advancing North Korean human rights.

Many of Pyongyang’s crimes against its citizens are enabled by China and Russia. While the North Korean regime bears primary responsibility for these abuses, its accomplices must also be held accountable by both the United States and the international community.

Dr. Victor D. Cha is a Senior Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute and Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Joseph Kim is Associate and Expert-in-Residence of Freedom and Democracy at the Bush Institute.