Roberta Cohen at 38 North: A Serious Human Rights Negotiation with North Korea

Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair Emeritus of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and one of the lions among those speaking out for the rights of the North Korean people, has published a detailed and well-thought-out case for why human rights should be part of any negotiation with Pyongyang, along with a tough-love strategy for conducting that negotiation. Anyone in the Trump administration who may be tempted to sideline human rights should read it in full, but I’ll summarize it: first, Pyongyang’s disregard for human life is central to why its nuclear weapons pose a threat; second, the law now requires Pyongyang to make progress on human rights before sanctions can be suspended (much less lifted); third, both Congress and many of our allies will insist that human rights occupy a central place in the agenda; and fourth, from a strictly utilitarian perspective, criticism of Pyongyang’s human rights abuses has proven to be one of the regime’s greatest vulnerabilities, and one of our strongest tools for exerting pressure on Pyongyang to accept change.

Cohen acknowledges that Pyongyang will resist talking about human rights (just as it will resist denuclearization), but notes that since the publication of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report in 2014, the consensus has grown, both in America and globally, that human rights must have an important place in the agenda.

Cohen then proposes a specific negotiating strategy, rejecting “[a] permissive approach born out of fear that ‘a forceful human rights policy may backfire.'” “North Korea will not become less dangerous by being asked to promulgate another law on economic, social and cultural rights, ratify more human rights treaties or add more women to public office….” As a starting point, she calls for the release of Americans held in North Korea and meetings between Korean-Americans and their North Korean relatives. Next, she would demand that Pyongyang give full access to the U.N. Special Rapporteur and humanitarian agencies to North Korea’s most vulnerable people, including political prisoners.

Although in 2012, the US regarded prisoners in the prison labor camps as too sensitive to talk about, its statements and policy changed dramatically after satellite imagery, former prisoner and guard testimonies and the COI report offered evidence of the camps’ existence and the cruelty practiced there. In 2016, Congress required the State Department by law to compile and provide information about the prison camps; and US human rights sanctions came about in part because of the camps. The intention is clear: the US must support the access of humanitarian agencies not only to places North Korea allows, but to the most vulnerable in camps and detention facilities. [Roberta Cohen, 38 North]

Cohen would then call negotiations, through the Red Cross, for the release of those held in North Korea’s political prison camps, starting with the children. She would then call for the release of Japanese, South Korean, and other abductees. She emphasizes that this would be “a negotiation, not a dialogue,” using sanctions as leverage to extract meaningful (rather than transitory or cosmetic) concessions.

Certainly, were nuclear negotiations to take place, diplomacy and common sense would dictate that the US not use the occasion to publicly call for the accountability of people with whom the US is negotiating. But at the UN, over the past five years, the US, the EU, Japan, South Korea and more than 100 other states have stood firmly behind strong resolutions on North Korea’s human rights situation, including accountability. This multilateral effort is the only human rights measure that has ever unnerved North Korea, and could, over time, lead to results. It was the General Assembly’s reference to crimes against humanity and the ICC that prompted North Korea to offer visits to UN human rights officials. Its sensitivity even prompted Victor Cha and Robert Gallucci to comment that human rights could serve as “a source of leverage and pressure on North Korea for the nuclear issue.”[23] Similarly, in the United States, the human rights provisions in the North Korea Sanctions Act, adopted by near unanimity in Congress cannot simply be bartered away. Specific human rights steps are required to suspend and then terminate sanctions.[24]

Impossible? Perhaps, but a North Korea that remains determined to resist fundamental reforms will also resist denuclearization, monitoring, verification, and the cessation of its other threats to peace. There’s no way around it — Pyongyang cannot be credibly disarmed unless it is willing to accept other fundamental reforms and changes to its conduct. Human rights can be a test of whether Pyongyang is prepared to show respect for human life and for peace. Such a change is a sine qua non to peace and prosperity in the region, and the widening list of places impacted by Pyongyang’s proliferation, crime, and cyberattacks.

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