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Regaining Lost Ground in the North Korean Human Rights Movement

A deal with North Korea is not possible without an improvement in the human condition.

Report by Victor Cha March 19, 2020
Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

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A deal with North Korea is not possible without an improvement in the human condition. In the past, the United States privileged nuclear negotiations above all else. It became a policy truism to accept that the delicate negotiations would be made too indelicate by raising human rights with Pyongyang. Many negotiators feared that human rights discussions will distract from the main issue of denuclearization or even offend the regime and scuttle the talks.

The United States followed this playbook in the past three summits with Kim Jong-un, but there is zero evidence that avoiding human rights has helped the negotiations in any way. Indeed, despite these summits, the United States is no closer to a denuclearization agreement.

The United States has lost ground in the past three years, but that ground is recoverable. This year — 2020 — represents an opportunity for the United States to refocus its attention on human rights in North Korea. While a denuclearization deal with North Korea is still some distance away, the Trump Administration’s North Korea policy and the president’s unique summit diplomacy has produced multiple historic face-to-face meetings with the North Korean leader. This unprecedented access provides the United States with opportunities to bring this issue to the person single-handedly responsible for and capable of changing this situation. The United States needs to capitalize on that opportunity and make sure that human rights are on the agenda moving forward.