Just a few weeks ago on May 10, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived at Joint Base Andrews accompanied by the three Americans who were being held by North Korea. The freeing of these three men is not something to be overlooked, as it is a definite win for human rights, as well as a win for these men and their families. Many people had speculated the detainees would be freed as the result of the U.S.-North Korea summit. However, this step has already been completed leading up to the summit. Given this step forward and other previous moves by the Trump administration to highlight the human rights situation in North Korea, this poses the question–what is next for North Korean human rights? Specifically, what should be pursued in human rights during the U.S.-North Korea summit, or any other negotiations and dialogue the two countries partake in?
The dialogue going on with North Korea is an opportunity for the Trump administration to bring up the fundamental issues in North Korea’s human rights landscape. The Trump administration has had human rights on its North Korea agenda for quite some time now. Some examples include the President’s speech to the South Korean National Assembly late last year, the State of the Union address earlier this year, the SOTU invitation to Otto Warmbier’s family and North Korean escapee Ji Seong-ho, the invitation of eight escapees to the White House, and Vice President Pence’s meeting with a group of North Korean escapees on the sidelines of the Pyongchang Winter Olympics. These are just a few examples of how the current administration has shined a light on the deep, dark issues that North Korea works so vigorously to conceal. The U.S. is negotiating and talking with the North Korean regime openly to prepare for the upcoming summit and other future negotiations. Now is the time for human rights workers, North Korean escapees, and citizens to encourage the administration to continue pushing for human rights as this dialogue with North Korea takes place, and as the June 12th summit approaches. Each of these encounters is another opportunity for human rights to be brought up in the early stages of negotiations.
In order to make some progress in transforming the systematic violations that North Korea carries out, the Trump administration needs to address the core problems in North Korea’s human rights. A few of these would be: political prison camps, guilt by association, inminban (neighborhood watch system), and other forms of surveillance and control. North Korea’s intensive style of surveillance is the heart from where the other human rights issues stem. The stability and survival of the regime rests on Kim Jong-un’s ability to inflict fear upon his people, keeping them loyal for fear of the horrific consequences. In no way is North Korea close to being a normal state or a part of the international community so long as it maintains its fear driven tactics. North Korea uses its nuclear weapons to fill the international community with fear–a leverage tool. Simultaneously, extreme punishment, torture, imprisonment, and execution is the fear North Korea uses to control its own people. Kim Jong-un is playing the same game of fear using different tools at the international and domestic levels. Therefore, a completely normalized, safe, and peaceful North Korea worthy of regular international status and relations is a North Korea that can no longer use fear to threaten its own people and the world.
If complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization comes to be, North Korea will likely get economic rewards or relief for following through. This will begin the process of North Korea becoming a normalized state. However, as more North Koreans take risks to escape due to a perceived “openness,” or pursue capitalism and other ideas contradictory to the North Korean system, we can expect that North Korea will crack down more on its citizens, ultimately leading to potentially even worse human rights violations than the current time. This is why the U.S.-North Korea negotiations and summit provide an opportunity to make Kim Jong-un know that we are aware of his systematic and widespread violations, and that we will hold him accountable.
The U.S. and the international community cannot sit idly by and allow a North Korean state where as the economic state begins to prosper, human rights stay stagnant, or even worsen. We also should not settle for a North Korean state that becomes economically sufficient, yet citizens are silenced and accept a controlled life simply because they are provided with basic needs to survive. North Koreans deserve the most basic and the full range of human rights. If we only focus on denuclearization and the economy as part of North Korea becoming a normalized state, it will get more difficult to bring up human rights and shine a light on these issues.
While Kim Jong-un claims that releasing the American detainees was a “good-will gesture,” we cannot assume that a few “friendly” or open actions by Kim Jong-un mean that he has had an epiphany. After all, the three Americans should not have been detained in the first place. The Kim family regime lacks international credibility especially because of its mistreatment of the people of North Korea. Therefore, from here on out, the U.S. must continue a pursuit of North Korean human rights that reaches into the darkest depths of the regime, making a pathway for a free North Korean society, as well as a truly normalized North Korean state.
Grace Warwick has been a Research Intern at HRNK since September 2016. Her work includes English and Korean social media output, media monitoring, and other various projects. She is currently working on her Master of Global Affairs & Policy and has lived in South Korea on-and-off for the past two years.