The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has grown quite sensitive about the issue of human rights. Before Christmas, the North’s UN ambassador denounced a critical resolution as the product of “hostile forces that obsess with inveterate hatred against us.”
The U.S. also came under fire. A foreign ministry spokesman criticized Washington’s “malicious words” and “grave political provocation.” Pyongyang warned that the U.S. would “pay dearly” for its statements, which “will only produce a result of further aggravating the already tense situation on the Korean peninsula.”
Despite the DPRK’s fulminations, the Trump administration has not pressed the issue. In December Washington declined to back a UN Security Council discussion of North Korea’s human rights record. In fact, the president stopped talking about the North’s record when he sought to make a deal with Pyongyang.
Kim Jong-un poses a serious challenge to U.S. policy, mixing security and humanitarian concerns. To focus on the first seems callous. To emphasize the second is unrealistic. Mixing the two issues risks overloading a relationship that remains limited at best. Indeed, the president apparently assumes that addressing human rights would sink the already troubled nuclear talks. (Seoul has been equally hesitant to raise the issue, even when the victims are South Koreans—for instance, kidnapped by the North.)
Pyongyang is isolated and vulnerable; suffocating repression is a means of regime preservation. The less certain and more dangerous the security environment, the less likely Kim is to relax internal controls. To demand liberalization before offering security almost certainly is a dead end.
However, some analysts see today’s nuclear deadlock as reason to target human rights. For instance, Robert McCoy, a former Korea specialist for the Air Force, recently argued: “Since there is virtually no chance of nuclear disarmament, as finally admitted by the North, there is nothing to lose by bringing pressure on human rights to bear.”
The topic will never be easy to address: The North’s record is abysmal, turning it into a perverse standard of global governance. It has been oft said that Eritrea is the North Korea of Africa, which is not a compliment.