By Jeune Kim, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor, and Camille Freestone, HRNK Research Intern
July 1, 2020
It is a grave mistake to engage diplomatically with North Korea and ignore its human rights abuses. Under Kim Jong-un, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has expressed its interest in a peace treaty with the United States. In the past year, President Trump and Kim Jong-Un have indicated that they would like to usher in a new era of U.S.-DPRK relations based on a stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula.
After more than 30 years of diplomacy, the issue of human rights has not been included in negotiations with North Korea. During the Clinton administration, the United States and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework in 1994 to freeze North Korea’s operation and construction of nuclear reactors. In the framework, both sides committed “not to nuclearize the Korean Peninsula” and “to move toward normalizing economic and political relations.” However, in 2002, Pyongyang admitted to facilitating a uranium-enrichment program to build nuclear weapons and, in December, announced it would restart its nuclear facilities, effectively ending the Agreed Framework and withdrawing from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In August 2003, the Six Party Talks brought together representatives from South and North Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. After two years of negotiations, it issued a Joint Statement on initial steps to denuclearization. However, this too proved unsuccessful in halting Pyongyang’s nuclear program. When President Obama attempted to revive the Six Party Talks in 2009, the plan was rejected by North Korea, and despite an increase in sanctions, North Korea continued to test its nuclear and missile capabilities. After the summits between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, North Korea committed to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and President Trump declared that North Korea’s nuclear problem had been “largely solved.” However, follow-up negotiations have reached a stalemate, there is no agreed-upon road map for denuclearization, and North Korea continued to test missiles and vowed to boost its nuclear program.
Dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program has been the center of U.S. engagement policy. However, these endeavors have failed because the North Korean regime has failed to act in good faith on its commitment to bilateral and multilateral agreements. While the inclusion of human rights in U.S. engagement policy does not automatically guarantee the success of denuclearization policy, it is necessary to establish good faith with North Korea and for the success of any engagement with North Korea.
Historically, the United States has pursued four main objectives in diplomatic discussions with North Korea: 1) enhancing regional stability; 2) thwarting weapons proliferation; 3) encouraging North-South dialogue; and 4) protecting U.S.-ROK cooperation. Under President Trump, diplomacy with North Korea has focused on establishing a peace regime on the Korean peninsula, the denuclearization of North Korea, the normalization of diplomatic relations upon denuclearization, and the repatriation of U.S. POW/MIA remains. North Korea has also come under fire for its illicit activities in the international drug trade, counterfeiting schemes, and cybercrimes.
While these objectives and illicit activities are, without a doubt, of great importance, ignoring the human rights violations of the North Korean regime at the negotiating table will prove to be an impediment to the goal of successfully brokering peace on the Korean peninsula. The North Korean human rights issue should be included in the United States’ engagement policy based on universal human rights, responsibility, and strategy.
Universal Human Rights
The violation of human rights is wrong regardless of where they happen. In response to the atrocities experienced during World War II, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to guarantee the protection of individual rights and freedoms of every individual everywhere. Torture, forced labor, and denial of access to food and basic necessities are immoral, condemnable, and have been prohibited by international laws and treaties. Despite North Korea’s ratification of several human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and the United Nations Charter, they continue to violate these commitments and systematically abuse the human rights of their own citizens.
The world order is no longer a hegemony, but the United States still plays a vital role as a leader in world affairs. It remains an essential political and economic player. Having ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and as a leading member of the United Nations (UN) and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the United States has an obligation to uphold international human rights law and oppose policies and practices encouraging human rights abuses. Emphasizing the issue of human rights is not imposing “American values” onto its adversaries; rather, it demonstrates our responsibility to uphold international standards, norms, and commitment to human dignity.
The United States should include human rights as a pillar of engagement with North Korea not only because it is the right and responsible thing to do, but also because it is strategically viable. Pressuring North Korea on its human rights abuses demonstrates U.S. commitment to human rights and democracy. This approach would uphold the human rights of North Korean citizens and advance core national interests: transparency, democracy, rule of law, justice, and accountability. Furthermore, the United States demonstrating a deep commitment to protecting the rights of North Koreans could maintain the platform to garner international support and build coalitions to pressure North Korea. As it becomes clear that unilateral efforts to influence North Korea are limited in scope and staying power, international solutions and multilateral pressure may prove to be more successful—not only in regard to human rights—but also with denuclearization, weapons proliferation, and international crime. The United States has focused on a carrot and stick approach to its negotiations with North Korea. It must now increase its efforts to shape North Korea’s strategic environment. Other nations, such as China, Japan, and Russia, should have a vested interest in peace and denuclearization on the Korean peninsula. In an increasingly multipolar and globalized world, the United States will come to the negotiating table with a stronger hand if it has the unified support of other nations.
It is impossible to establish a stable and lasting peace regime on the Korean peninsula as long as North Korea continues to perpetrate obscene violations of human rights. Allowing North Korea to label criticism of its human rights record as “hostile policy” and dictate the narrative on human rights is not only irrational, but it is also a threat to the United States, to the international community, and, most of all, to North Korean citizens. The United States must make it clear to North Korea, and to any other aspiring rogue regime, that it will not tolerate such brutal and internationally prohibited behavior. The United States has now embarked on an unprecedented chapter in its relationship with North Korea. Whether it ends as another failure or successful stabilization of the peninsula depends on bringing North Korea’s repressive policies and brutal practices to heel and achieving the protection of human rights in North Korea.
Jeune Kim is a second-year student pursuing an M.A. in Global Policy Studies at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. Her specialization is in Security, Law, and Diplomacy.
 See Patrick McEachern, “What Does North Korea Want?,” The Foreign Service Journal (October 2019), https://www.afsa.org/what-does-north-korea-want. North Korea considers a peace treaty as a pretext to end the permanent stationing of U.S. troops in South Korea. This is also what they mean by denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
 Although the United States and North Korea view peaceful relations differently, the Singapore Summit Joint Statement signed by President Trump and Chairman Kim states, “The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” Available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/joint-statement-president-donald-j-trump-united-states-america-chairman-kim-jong-un-democratic-peoples-republic-korea-singapore-summit/.
 “Agreed Framework between the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” October 21, 1994, https://www.armscontrol.org/documents/af.
 “The U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework at a Glance,” July 2018, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/agreedframework
 “North Korean Nuclear Negotiations: 1985-2019”, https://www.cfr.org/timeline/north-korean-nuclear-negotiations
 “Remarks by President Trump in Press Gaggle,” June 15, 2018, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-press-gaggle/
 See Daniel Wertz, “The U.S., North Korea, and Nuclear Diplomacy,” National Committee on North Korea (October 2018) https://www.ncnk.org/resources/briefing-papers/all-briefing-papers/history-u.s.-dprk-relations#footnote27_ff9hzt1
 See Choe Sang-hun, “North Korea Vows to Boost Nuclear Program, Saying U.S. Diplomacy Failed,” New York Times, June 11, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/11/world/asia/north-korea-nuclear-trump.html
 Ibid, Singapore Summit Joint Statement.
 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights: History of the Document”, https://www.un.org/en/sections/universal-declaration/history-document/index.html
 See Ted Piccone, “Tillerson says goodbye to human rights diplomacy,” Brookings, May 5, 2017.
 Although some experts argue that multilateral efforts such as the Six Party Talks yielded little results and took too long (see Jayshree Bajoria and Beina Xu, “The Six Party Talks on North Korea’s Nuclear Program,” Council on Foreign Relations, September 30, 2013), recent bilateral talks have not improved relations or progress on denuclearization (see Scott Snyder, “Why U.S.-North Korea Talks Failed Again,” Council on Foreign Relations, October 8, 2019).
 See North Korea after Kim Jong-il: Still Dangerous and Erratic: Hearing Before the House Committee of Foreign Affairs, 112th Cong.2 (2012) (statement of Scott Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations).
 See “Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” UN General Assembly document A/HRC/25/63, February 7, 2014; Amb. Ja Song Nam, “Letter dated 20 December 2014 from the Permanent Representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the United Nations addressed to the President of the Security Council,” UN Security Council document S/2014/930.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.