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The Peninsula

Can the U.S. Leverage Human Rights to Catalyze Progress on North Korea?

Published September 8, 2014
Category: North Korea

By Joseph Dahl

Two pieces of Congressional legislation, while still in their nascent stages, have the potential to reshape U.S. policy on North Korea. A bill known as H.R. 1771, or the North Korean Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2014, recently passed the House, and a bill specifically addressing North Korea’s human rights was introduced by the Senate shortly before August recess.

For all intents and purposes, H.R. 1771 would impose additional sanctions against North Korea because of the country’s rogue nuclear weapons program and its perpetual crimes against humanity. The efficacy of such sanctions can rightfully be debated, and their potential repercussions must be addressed; but there are also concerns about the effectiveness of President Obama’s current policy, especially if a fourth nuclear test occurs or if genocide is indeed taking place within North Korea. Meanwhile, the Senate human rights bill would require the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to submit in 2015 a report on human rights in North Korea. More specifically, the DNI would report on the political prison camps pervading North Korea and the steps being taken by the U.S. to follow through on the recommendations made by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry (C.O.I.) report that investigated North Korea’s human rights violations. By decisively addressing Pyongyang’s human rights violations and tying them to additional sanctions, these two bills add another dimension through which the U.S. can pressure North Korea.

The United States must do more, however. Conceivably, the end-goal of these two bills is to put enough pressure on North Korea that it is compelled to return to the negotiating table. And yet, the current political landscape of Northeast Asia is not conducive at the moment to fruitful multilateral negotiations. Both South Korea and China have frayed relations with Japan because of historical issues and territorial disputes, inter-Korean relations could be better, and allies fret over U.S. commitment to the region. Additionally, the United States and North Korea remain at an impasse on U.S. conditions for engagement on denuclearization. Therefore the United States, in addition to pressuring the Kim regime through increased sanctions, needs to find a way to build confidence in the region so that high-level multilateral talks on denuclearization can be more productive should such an opportunity present itself.

A possible approach could involve attempting to engage North Korea on a discreet issue pertaining to human rights. Working alongside South Korea and Japan, and possibly even China if it became more apprehensive of the Kim regime, the U.S. could make an effort to endorse, and perhaps even participate in, high-level talks on a specific human rights issue. Not only would this help address the regime’s human rights failings, but it could help establish an alternative path to build both trust and a way forward with North Korea.

Admittedly, North Korea would likely reject such talks at first because the regime becomes exacerbated whenever it is accused of human rights violations. However, Japan has opened the door to greater cooperation with North Korea by focusing on the human rights issue of abductees. And just over Labor Day weekend, North Korea allowed CNN to interview three Americans being detained in North Korea. According to an article by the Wall Street Journal, such a gesture indicates the regime’s “desire to resolve the issue through some sort of contact with Washington.” Although multiple experts have suggested these interviews are just another attempt to bilk the U.S. for concessions and to be recognized as a nuclear state, Washington still has an opportunity to press the issue of human rights more forcibly and without giving into either concessions or demands to recognize the regime as a nuclear state. If passed, H.R. 1771 and the Senate bill would ostensibly put more pressure on Pyongyang. While it remains highly unlikely that the regime would then give up its nuclear weapons, it may yet concede on an issue related to human rights if the added pressure from these two Congressional bills were intense enough. The Obama administration should not allow its objective of complete and irreversible denuclearization to overshadow a potential avenue for engagement, as well as an opportunity to assess North Korea’s resolve and continued defiance.

A willingness only to engage Pyongyang after it takes steps to denuclearize is futile in the long-run and will never lead to true denuclearization, so long as the U.S. fails to build confidence in the region and trust between Washington and Pyongyang. At the moment the denuclearization path is blocked, but there appears to be a potential opening on the human rights path. To take full advantage of this, the Obama administration should create a separate avenue for engagement with North Korea on a specific human rights issue.  Doing so could provide President Obama the opportunity to implement a more effective dual-track policy—one that intensifies the pressure on Pyongyang through H.R. 1771 and the Senate bill, while using human rights and North Korea’s seeming desire for engagement as a stepping-stone to build confidence for a wider degree of discussions. Whether that would lead to more comprehensive talks on denuclearization is unclear, but it could at least build trust between Washington and Pyongyang while also reassuring allies in the region that the U.S. is committed to the security of Northeast Asia.

Joseph Dahl is currently working on a Masters in Public Policy from University of Maryland. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Matt Paish’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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