Photograph Credit: Gage Skidmore
By Jane Kuper, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs, and Sophia Hapin, HRNK Research Intern
March 10, 2021
There is no doubt that President Joe Biden has inherited some of the most difficult policy issues in recent history. Although he may be focused on issues like coronavirus relief, racial injustice, climate change, and immigration reform, America’s relationship with North Korea is an area that urgently needs attention. President Biden is likely to take a more traditional role than President Trump regarding foreign relations, but how will he address the human rights abuses committed by the regime?
The Kim regime operates through a system of surveilling, intimidating, and punishing its citizens to maintain its power. Every perceived minor offense against the state is punished severely, and guilt-by-association applies. Political prison camps are used to torture, starve, exploit and kill the regime’s subjects. The 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) revealed that the crimes against humanity committed in the camps included “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape and other grave sexual violence”.  The DPRK has denied that these camps exist at all. They claim that since the term “political prisoner” does not exist in their vocabulary; therefore, “the so-called political prisoners’ camps do not exist”.  The Biden administration must not forget these abuses if it engages with North Korea. The lives of North Koreans can no longer be ignored in the name of summit diplomacy.
Despite beginning his presidency by trading insults with Kim Jong-un, Trump’s relationship with North Korea quickly turned friendly. The pair exchanged “beautiful letters,” and Trump even joked that they “fell in love.” However, the president’s warmth towards Kim legitimized the regime and also revealed that he prioritized summit diplomacy over human rights and even denuclearization. The summits with Kim were labeled as “photo-ops” since they led to little progress . Biden harshly criticized Trump’s approach to U.S.-DPRK relations. He compared the friendliness toward the North Korean leader to the friendliness that America sometimes displayed towards pre-World War II Hitler . An anonymous policy advisor stated that “the era of love letters [to Kim] will be over,” and Biden said that he “would not continue direct personal diplomacy with Kim.” Scott Snyder, the director of the U.S.-Korea policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations stated that although “the Trump administration also sought working-level talks as a complement to top-down diplomacy”, “the Biden administration desires to reverse the order and wants to make progress in working-level talks in order to justify summitry,”  Biden’s wariness of Kim brings hope that he will not legitimize the regime. The President would only meet with Kim if he agrees to decrease North Korea’s nuclear capacity, since Biden believes that “the Korean Peninsula should be a nuclear-free zone.” 
Biden seems to have a singular focus on denuclearization when engaging with North Korea, and he has made no explicit indication whether he will push for human rights progress. In his op-ed for Yonhap News in October 2020, the President stated that he would use “principled diplomacy,” as in the traditional approach of arranging meetings of lower-level officials, instead of meeting directly with Kim face to face. He aims for denuclearization and unification. Although Trump featured disabled North Korean escapee turned ROK Assemblyman Ji Seong-ho during his 2018 State of the Union and met with a group of North Korean escapees afterwards, he avoided mentioning human rights abuses after the beginning of the summitry. Biden has promised to engage less directly with Kim and has the opportunity to define his stance by fighting against human rights abuses that have been neglected. The media and governments often focus on North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities, but they need to also give a voice to those suffering under the regime. Abusing its citizens is how the regime keeps its power, and to adequately address denuclearization, human rights issues must also be addressed. As Nikki Haley, former US ambassador to the UN, stated in a 2017 meeting, the regime’s “menacing march towards building a nuclear weapon arsenal begins with the oppression and exploitation of ordinary North Korean people.”
North Korea has made it clear how they feel about President Joe Biden. The regime’s media has called Biden a “rabid dog” that “must be beaten to death with a stick.” They also added that “such rabid dogs are second to none in their craftiness in seeking their own interests,” which emphasizes the North’s distrust of the President. Biden cited these comments to explain why he would not meet face-to-face with Kim Jong Un. This propaganda is in sharp contrast to how the regime portrayed President Trump after the summitry began. With Trump appeasing Kim, some anti-American propaganda had been taken down across the country. The era of love letters will be coming to an end under the new Biden administration. At the recent 8th Party Congress, Kim Jong-Un’s comments left little hope for U.S.-DPRK relations. He stated that “Whoever takes power in the US, its entity and the real intention of its policy toward the DPRK would never change.” 
Currently, North Korea is in a much more fragile position than it was during the Trump presidency. In an attempt to control the coronavirus, the regime closed its border with China, its main trading partner. With trade stalled, even the informal markets are sinking.. Although the country has not published any real data regarding COVID-19, we can guess they are being hit hard. The North Korean healthcare system is “fragile and precarious,” and many of its citizens are malnourished and in poor health. The regime is more desperate and, therefore, more dangerous. Recently, a military parade was staged to show off new weapons. The regime continues to expand its nuclear capabilities in an attempt to show its strength, while its weaknesses are readily apparent in the lack of basic necessities for the majority of the North Korean people. 
We all hope that the Biden administration will take a hard look at the human rights situation in North Korea. The President has made it clear that he is not interested in legitimizing the regime, so he should also not legitimize the abuse and control of its citizens. The regime may be outwardly hostile by showing its nuclear power, but the only way to mitigate the regime’s threats is to weaken the regime through the source of its power: human rights abuses. As Ambassador Nikki Haley has said, “We continue to think that there is a separation between peace and security and human rights, and there is not” . For a better future, we need to change the U.S. approach to North Korea from being denuclearization-focused to human rights-focused. Ambassador Samatha Power once stated that “this regime has no double” when it comes to human rights abuses. She addressed the regime with, “We are documenting your crimes, and one day you will be judged for them” . Maybe judgement day could come sooner rather than later.
Jane Kuper is a former HRNK Intern. This coming fall, she will be studying Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at Oxford University.
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HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.