Must read: RFK Center calls for a “rights up front” policy toward N. Korea

The report, by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, along with the Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea,* calls on the U.S. to defer its pursuit of Agreed Framework III, and instead confront the very reason why Pyongyang shouldn’t have nuclear weapons, and why diplomacy with it will continue to fail:

Only when North Korea begins to develop a record of improvement on human rights can it engage with the U.S. on other issues, including security, the economy, a peace treaty, or eventual normalization of diplomatic relations. Indeed, improving North Korea’s human rights record should be the litmus test of North Korea’s credibility to engage on other issues. After all, if a government has no regard for the lives of its own people, what regard does it have for the lives of others? What deters it from provoking a war, or proliferating missile technology and weapons of mass destruction to terrorists? [Robert F. Kennedy Center]

In doing so, the report also challenges an exhausted and paralyzed foreign policy establishment that, at least with respect to North Korea, has become a hospice for dying dogma and hasn’t had an original idea since 1989:

For a quarter of a century, U.S. diplomatic strategy has sought to separate and narrow its disagreements with North Korea, to solve them sequentially. Yet the path to solving all of these disagreements is barred by the same obstacle – North Korea’s isolation and secrecy. The agreed framework of 1994 and 2007 agreement both broke down over verification. Similarly, without transparency, the World Food Program cannot monitor the access to food aid, the International Atomic Energy Agency cannot monitor disarmament, and North Korea will deny that its prison camps even exist – including one that is directly adjacent to its nuclear test site. Without transparency, there can be no verification. Transparency in humanitarian matters such as food aid and the treatment of prisoners cannot be sidelined if there is to be a verifiable denuclearization of North Korea.

The report recites Pyongyang’s lengthy history of ignoring U.N. requests to cooperate with human rights inquiries—a history that illustrates the disingenuousness of its recent, often inartful, efforts to “engage” the EU and other U.N. member states.

(Those efforts appear to be failing; North Korea has broken off talks with the EU, which continues to advance a draft General Assembly resolution that calls for a referral to the International Criminal Court. A proposed Cuban amendment that removes the ICC referral language seems unlikely to pass. The General Assembly could vote as early as next week, setting up a showdown between the U.S., which at least nominally supports the EU’s referral resolution, and China, which opposes it.)

The report also contains some news for former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, Cheonan conspiracy theorist, and free-range hostage video presenter Donald Gregg, who is under the mistaken impression that Kim Jong Un is improving human rights in North Korea:

The human rights situation has deteriorated under the Kim Jong-un regime. Three trends stand out in particular: 1) an aggressive crackdown on attempted defections – the number of North Korean escapees arriving in South Korea declined by almost 50% from 2011 to 2012/2013); 2) an aggressive purge – culminating in the execution of Jang Sung-taek, the leader’s uncle, and his associates in December 2013; and 3) the “restructuring” of North Korea’s political prison camp system – facilities near the border with China have been closed, while other camps have been expanded.

The greatest value of the RFK Center’s report, however, will be to erase a line of ideological polarization that bounded the North Korea human rights movement for years. That an avowedly liberal organization like the RFK Center has joined with the leader of a bipartisan one (the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea) to support legislation written by a conservative Republican (Chairman Ed Royce) in partnership with his liberal Democratic friend and colleague (Ranking Member Elliot Engel) means that within both parties, the center of gravity has shifted, and that the mainstream is coalescing around a new consensus–that Kim Jong Un is unworthy of our trust, and must be held accountable for his crimes against humanity. Here are the report’s recommendations:

a. Congress should pass the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act and the current Executive Orders sanctioning North Korean individuals and entities involved in illicit activities should be implemented more effectively. President Obama could also sign a new Executive Order sanctioning specifically those most responsible for human rights violations in North Korea.

b. Human rights should be a central feature in all future negotiations with North Korea, especially in any future Six-Party Talks.

c. The U.S. should pursue accountability measures and the protection of human rights in North Korea through U.N. channels, such as through U.N. Security Council sanctions; a referral to the International Criminal Court; a U.N. General Assembly resolution to create an ad hoc tribunal to try North Korea’s officials; and encouraging broader coordination among U.N. agencies to incorporate the COI report and a “rights up front” approach into their North Korea work.

d. The U.S. should press China to end its practice of forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees, to allow international agencies to investigate refugee conditions in China, and to permit and facilitate travel for refugees to neighboring countries.

e. The U.S. should support people-to-people interactions with ordinary North Koreans.

f. The U.S. should continue to support NGOs and other organizations tasked to monitor and report on North Korea’s human rights violations as well as those facilitating information exchange in and out of the country through funding and strategic consultation.

Today, the brightest rising star on the liberal side of this vanishing divide is Daniel Aum, a young Korean-American lawyer who rose from being an HRNK intern to one of the RFKC’s most effective voices in the space of what seems like just a year. I don’t know it for a fact, but I choose to assume that Aum played a decisive role in bringing the credibility and gravitas of the RFK Center to this cause.

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, of course, has always been bipartisan, and it has always counted liberals like Roberta Cohen and conservatives like Andrew Natsios among its organizational and intellectual leaders. And on the conservative side, Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation has emerged as a persuasive and respected proponent of H.R. 1771, the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act.

It’s also worth noting that neither Amnesty International nor Human Rights Watch has been more than a token presence in this movement. If you’re a member of either organization, I hope you’ll ask them to do something about that.

Yes, cynicism has its uses, but this report proves that conscientious people of different persuasions–including members of Congress, in 2014–can unite around a worthy cause and demand effective action. One hopes that this emerging consensus will continue to grow, and will be strong enough to survive partisan shifts in Congress and the Presidency.

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* A previous version of this post indicated that this report was produced jointly by the Robert F. Kennedy Center and the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, or HRNK. HRNK’s Executive Director, Greg Scarlatoiu and Research & Development Associate Amanda Mortwedt Oh are co-authors of the report in their personal capacities.

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