North Korea: U.S. Policy Must Combine Human Rights and Security Issues

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Lindsay Lloyd

North Korea will be a top challenge for the new administration. North Korea's unprecedented and accelerating tempo of missile tests and nuclear detonations shows no signs of abating. But denuclearization can neither be pursued nor attained without addressing the human rights abuses in the country.

This essay is part of a new series of policy recommendations from the George W. Bush Institute. To read more, visit What’s Next: Policy Recommendations from the Bush Institute.
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You cannot blame anyone for feeling a sense of drift over the last decade with the U.S. policy of “strategic patience” towards North Korea. Waiting for sanctions to take away the nuclear potential of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea reflected a focus on other priorities and the cumulative frustrations of several successive administrations.

North Korea, however, will be a top challenge for the new administration. North Korea’s unprecedented and accelerating tempo of missile tests and nuclear detonations – 64 between 2009 and 2016 – shows no signs of abating. We can expect more in 2017. 

Related Resources

Light Through the Darkness
Improving the Human Condition in North Korea. Defining a New Path Forward.

Toward a New Policy and Strategy for North Korea
by Victor Cha and Robert L. Gallucci

Education and Employment Among U.S.-Based North Koreans: Challenges and Opportunities
Study on North Korean refugees in the United States

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At the same time, we must deal with the fact that North Koreans suffer widespread human rights violations and are denied fundamental freedoms. The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) Report documents food shortages, political prison camps, public executions, and detentions without due process.

Along with mass labor mobilization, these atrocities all favor the regime and its objectives over the rights of ordinary citizens. And an unprecedented wave of elite purges has led to a number of recent high-level defections. 

Fortunately, the COI’s charges of crimes against humanity have galvanized world opinion. Nations can no longer ignore the issue when dealing with Pyongyang or those that interact regularly with it.

The fact is, denuclearization can neither be pursued nor attained without addressing these abuses. Data from the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea shows that revenues from human rights abuses, like the export of slave labor, are suspected to fund nuclear proliferation activities.

Unfortunately, sanctions have not altered the regime’s behavior, either towards its own people or in building a nuclear arsenal. As a result, strategic patience will not suffice as a policy for the new administration, especially since North Korea will have scores of nuclear weapons by the end of this decade. And those weapons will be mated to ballistic missiles for delivery to regional and intercontinental targets, including perhaps our own West Coast. 

Kicking the can down the road is not an option.

Instead, as a new Bush Institute report by scholars Victor Cha and Robert Gallucci argues, we need a more engaged North Korea policy that must equally pursue denuclearization and human rights improvement, while incorporating these elements:

Integrate non-proliferation and human rights sanctions

We must strengthen our sanctions strategy to isolate and weaken North Korea, including calling out political and military leaders for making money off selling nuclear technologies, illicit activities, and human rights abuses.

View China as part of the solution, but not the total solution 

We must remind Beijing of its responsibility to use its influence with its clients in Pyongyang to avoid provocations. At the same time, we must resist the temptation to subcontract the most urgent security issue in Northeast Asia to China.

Maintain denuclearization goals 

While remaining open to diplomatic options, we must insist that the outcome of negotiations include the eventual re-entry of the North into the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime.

Stop horizontal proliferation

We must unambiguously warn the North Koreans at the highest levels that the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology to another state or non-national actor cannot and will not be tolerated by the United States. We must draw a genuine red line. 

Remain open to diplomacy

We must avoid making the goals of any negotiations the preconditions for entering those negotiations. We also must be wary of entering protracted negotiations where the North may continue to advance their nuclear or ballistic capability. 

Avoid preconceived notions about the format for negotiations

Six party talks may be dead – or not – but the essential participants will be the United States and North Korea, whatever the formal structure may be. 

Sustain deterrence and reassure allies

We must continue visible security consultations and exercises with friends and allies in the region. We must also continue quarterly cabinet or sub-cabinet level diplomatic coordination with our allies. 

Commit to unification

We must take prudent steps with our allies to prepare for the realization of our ultimate goal of a unified Korea, whether through the slow transformation of the North Korean state, or its sudden collapse.