Why human rights must be a part of the Trump administration’s North Korea policy

Yesterday, the State Department hailed the U.N. Human Rights Council’s adoption of a resolution condemning North Korea’s human rights abuses and recommending that member states help identify perpetrators for possible prosecution. The U.N.’s progress has been agonizingly slow, and I won’t argue against those who say that the HRC’s membership standards are Exhibit A in the case for reforming it. Still, for an administration that has not emphasized human rights, that’s an encouraging sign.

By now, it’s fairly clear that the Trump administration’s North Korea policy review will not recommend that we chase Kim Jong-un for talks he doesn’t want, to plead for a freeze or disarmament he won’t give, or (in the unlikely event he does agree, when under pressure) long keep. That is for the best. There may yet be a time for talks with North Korea, but that time will be after progressive diplomacy aligns the rest of the world behind denying the regime the choice to survive as a nuclear state, and after pressure begins to threaten the regime’s survival.

By now, it’s also fairly clear that to build that pressure, the Trump administration won’t spare the Chinese banks whose money laundering has been essential to Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power, despite the discontent that this consolidation has sown among the elites. That is also good.

What I have been watching for, and what I have not yet seen much of, is evidence that the policy will include another essential ingredient: pressure on Pyongyang over its denial of human rights to its people (and on Beijing, for its support for that denial). Yesterday, I took the afternoon off to attend this event at the American Enterprise Institute, commemorating the third anniversary of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report, where Justice Michael Kirby attended and spoke (starting at 2:43:00 of this video). My panel started at 3:50:00 and focused on the links between security issues (which often crowd out and sideline other issues) and human rights. Watch all of the presentations — they’re all excellent. In fact, when I have the time to watch it, I’m sure I’ll say the same of all of the day’s speeches and panels. At 4:29:00, I make my case that one cannot build or sustain an international or domestic consensus on North Korea policy without making human rights a central issue in that policy. Here’s why:

1. Congress will not unite around a policy that excludes human rights. Human rights is the issue that unites liberals and conservatives in Congress more than any other. Neither will stand for its exclusion, and neither will stop talking about it.

2. The world will not unite around a policy that excludes human rights. In recent years, we’ve seen Europe, Japan, and even such far-flung nations as Botswana mobilize around human rights as a central issue in their own approaches to North Korea.

3. North Korea’s denial of human rights explains why we should care about its missiles, VX, and nukes. I lose no sleep over the fact that France, Israel, or India have nukes. No other nuclear state — not even China — shows nearly the reckless disregard for human life that North Korea does. North Korea can’t be trusted with small arms, much less nukes. We know that because of how North Korea treats its people.

4. It’s a source of surprising leverage over North Korea. I won’t say it’s exactly kryptonite to them, but they’re showing signs of being much more vulnerable to it than even I had suspected.

5. It will be a source of leverage over South Korea. It will be a way to pressure Moon Jae-in if he tries to reopen Kaesong or make similar arrangements that violate and undermine U.N. sanctions by using the slave labor of fellow Koreans. It will be a way to pin the shame of history on him if he again advocates abstaining from U.N. resolutions condemning North Korea’s crimes against humanity, or permitting the sort of outrageous and unethical harassment of North Korean refugees that Minbyun used against the Ningpo 13. So let South Korea engage in cultural and sports exchanges if it thinks this will lower tensions or improve relations, as long as money does not change hands, and as long as South Korea does not legitimize the crimes that the world should instead unite to demand that it end.

6. Human rights is a test of whether diplomacy is even possible. Given North Korea’s negotiating history, we’d be fools to trust it as it is. Why should we trust it when it tells flagrant lies about the most basic conditions of life within its borders or denies that its political prison camps even exist? Or when it hides vast areas of its territory from the world, including a prison camp, Camp 16, that’s directly adjacent to its nuclear test site? Or when every scientist, soldier, or resident who tells the truth to a weapons inspector fears being sent to one of those camps? Engagement advocates insist that North Korea wants diplomatic and trade relations with us. But in the end, we will never have — and should never have — a normal relationship with a county that commits crimes against humanity. Engagement advocates laugh when I suggest that North Korea should allow food aid workers to freely monitor how their aid is distributed, or let Red Cross workers set up clinic or feeding stations in prison camps (like we’d expect any other government to do). What does that tell you about the prospects for an enduring disarmament or a peace treaty?

Finally, if the Trump administration eventually accepts that the defense of human rights is a source of American strength — not just against North Korea, but against Iran, China, and (yes) Russia — it will realize that it cannot adopt policies that render its own advocacy of human rights a punchline. That does not mean that it must yield to every naive or extreme demand that we open our borders to all comers, but it does mean that some of the more practical minds in the new administration will have stronger arguments against candidate Trump’s less practical and more extreme ideas about fighting terrorism that would deny us moral authority ourselves. That, too, would be to the betterment of the world.

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