Search All Site Content

Total Index: 5825 publications.

Subscribe to our Mailing List!

Sign up for our mailing list to keep up to date on all the latest developments.

The Peninsula

Helsinki Accords for Northeast Asia?

Published November 12, 2014

By Phil Eskeland

On August 1, 1975, 35 nations representing the rival Eastern and Western bloc alliances[1] signed an accord that created the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) designed to reduce tensions and promote dialogue during the height of the Cold War as part of the “détente” policy of the 1970’s.  The accord established ten fundamental principles (otherwise known as the “Decalogue”) governing basic internal and external behaviors of each signatory state.  The Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) believed it had won a brilliant diplomatic victory because the Helsinki Accords, also known as the Helsinki Final Act, included principles focusing on the inviolability of frontiers and respect for territorial integrity, which they thought made the post-World War II division of Europe permanent.  Western leaders, including U.S. President Gerald Ford, were harshly criticized, primarily by those of Eastern European heritage, for the perception that Eastern Europe and the Baltic nations would forever be dominated by the Soviet Union.[2]

However, the Helsinki Accords also included significant provisions dealing with human rights and cultural and educational exchanges of ideas and peoples.  Initially, Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev thought the humanitarian issues would not bring much trouble inside the Eastern bloc.  Nevertheless, these humanitarian principles sowed the seeds that eventually led to the demolishment of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago this month and the peaceful downfall of the mighty Soviet Union through the empowerment of courageous individuals who lived under this communist system to “claim official permission to say what they thought.”[3]  This led to the creation of Helsinki Watch, which supported dissidents throughout the Eastern bloc who were monitoring government compliance with the Helsinki Accords.[4]  In fact, there was a premonition of the potential of this agreement by Henry Kissinger, the architect of America’s détente policy, that “the proof of the CSCE’s success lies in the future.”[5]

Thus, there is a desire to replicate the Helsinki process in Northeast Asia as a tool to decrease tensions on the Korean peninsula and to improve the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea).  The sentiment is completely understandable.  There is justifiable frustration with the limited world-wide attention paid to North Korea, the one of the world’s most repressive regimes.  In fact, Freedom House includes North Korea among the “worst of the worst” nations, along with Syria and the Central African Republic, in terms of political rights and civil liberties.  There is no freedom in North Korea.  It holds tens of thousands of prisoners in brutal forced labor camps.  One can be executed for vaguely defined offenses against the state.  While the United Nations Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry played a helpful role in spotlighting the desperately horrid human rights situation in North Korea, the situation inside North Korea remains the same.

However, there are significant challenges to replicating the Helsinki model to North Korea.  First, the Helsinki Accords were an agreement among nations that recognized each other.  Even though there was bitter rivalry between the East and West during the Cold War, at least both sides were regularly talking to each other and had normal diplomatic channels open.  The United States still does not recognize North Korea.  While diplomatic non-recognition does not prohibit discussion, it makes conducting negotiations much more difficult and complex.

Second, the Helsinki Accords were negotiated among equally paired parties – the United States and its Western allies with the Soviet Union and the rest of the Eastern bloc. It is difficult to imagine a similar Helsinki process negotiated between the most powerful country in the world – the United States – and one of the smallest countries in the world – North Korea.  Plus, the U.S. should avoid the trap of negotiating with North Korea alone in order to insure that the U.S. and South Korea continue to work hand-in-glove with respect to policy towards North Korea.  However, if a Helsinki-style negotiation process includes other neighbors in the region, such as China and Russia, again, it is difficult to conceive of an outcome that is different than the United Nations Human Rights Council where both of these more repressive governments are members and act to water-down any resolutions with respect to North Korea to avoid setting any precedents that could lead to criticisms of their own human rights record.

Third, the Helsinki Accords were not negotiated in a vacuum.  These talks were part of a comprehensive détente policy that included negotiations to limit weapons of mass destruction and conventional arms.  The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had completed the Biological Weapons Convention; the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM)  Defense Treaty; and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) I in 1972; talks on reducing conventional forces and arms in Europe began in 1973 in Vienna, Austria; and President Ford held a summit meeting with Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev in Vladivostok in November 1974 that reached an agreement in principle on the next strategic arms limitation treaty (eventually becoming SALT II in 1979).  There is no similar progress in relations with North Korea to buttress such a process.  The Six Party Talks denuclearization process has been in hibernation for over five years after North Korea attempted a missile launch in 2009.  Even the “Leap Day” agreement of 2012, where the U.S. came back to the negotiating table in good faith by promising substantial food aid in return for North Korea agreeing to a moratorium on uranium enrichment and missile testing, was violated a few weeks later when North Korea again attempted to launch a satellite into orbit.  While there is renewed hope for high-level talks after recent visit to South Korea by a senior delegation of North Korean officials at the end of the Asian Games, the concern is that the cycle of negotiations and provocations may be repeated.  On top of this was the recent revelation by the Commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, General Curtis Scaparrotti, that North Korea is now capable of producing a miniaturized nuclear warhead.[6]

Fourth, China, North Korea, and certainly Russia now know of the potency of the humanitarian provisions of the Helsinki Accords.  While dismissed at the time by the Soviet Union, empowering dissidents led to the eventual downfall of the regime.  So, again, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where North Korea would agree to any language modeled after the humanitarian provisions in the Helsinki Accords because they know it would signal the beginning of the end of their regime.  Even if the United States provided guarantees to not overthrow the regime and respect the territorial integrity of the DPRK, the brutal North Korea government would know that it would be only a matter of time before their people would learn the truth and seek internal change.

Fifth, the Helsinki Accords were more than just a document focusing on human rights.  The Act was a comprehensive agreement that covered three broad areas or baskets:  political, economic, and cultural/human rights.  In addition, as mentioned earlier, military issues were discussed concurrently in another forum (the Mutual and Balanced Forces Reductions talks in Vienna).  Thus, it would be difficult to envision negotiations with North Korea limited to humanitarian issues.  Even if discussions were limited to human rights, there would soon be multiple issues on the table that could complicate negotiations, particularly if other countries from Northeast Asia are involved, and increase the ante in terms of demands from North Korea to resolve, such as signing peace treaty, lifting all sanctions, and formal diplomatic recognition.

Finally, the Eastern bloc of nations was, relatively speaking, more open to foreigners and outside sources of information than present-day North Korea.  Information control is of paramount importance to the North Korean regime.  In a paper presented before the Korea Economic Institute (KEI) earlier this year by Scott Thomas Bruce of the East-West Center, he stated that “North Korea is a place where optimistic dreams of technology-driven liberalism go to die.”  In fact, even “radios are hardwired to only receive government-run channels.”[7]  In contrast, people in the Soviet Union or Warsaw Pact nations were able to listen to Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.  Thus, many in those countries understood the differences between the East and the West, as reflected in the dark jokes they told each other that poked fun at their leadership.  In North Korea, many – particularly those in the countryside without access to reliable electricity – simply do not know anything different about life outside of their immediate surroundings.

What to do?

First, it is important to recognize that the Helsinki Accords were not the first agreement negotiated between the Eastern and Western bloc.  As mentioned before, agreements on military or security matters came before the Helsinki Accords that started even prior to the era of détente such as the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed in 1963 between the U.S, U.S.S.R., and Great Britain.  The U.S. had also ended its combat role in Vietnam in 1973 and U.S. President Richard Nixon visited communist China in 1972 to capitalize on the split in relations between the U.S.S.R. and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  Thus, it is not unprecedented to build on agreements in the security field to branch out into other issues areas in an otherwise tense or hostile diplomatic relationship.

However, there is the added problem of the frequent inability of the North Korean regime to follow through on its international commitments.  It would be highly doubtful that détente would have been a viable policy for the United States if the Soviet Union conducted a nuclear or biological weapons test or launched an ABM shortly after signing a treaty banning those practices.  Yet, North Korea continues to defy or ignore commitments it made to others in the international community.  So how can any nation count on North Korea to follow through on its commitments in a Helsinki-style accord if they can be revoked unilaterally on the whim of the North Korean leadership?

That is why it is important to start off with small steps in order to build a reservoir of good will to embark on greater challenges.  This is the essence of President Park Geun-hye’s “Trustpolitk” strategy.  For example, if North Korea cannot even allow regular visits between family members caught on opposite sides of the 38th Parallel, then it is difficult to imagine progress on other issues.  The U.S. and other like-minded democratic nations should, in the short-term, focus like a laser-beam on this correcting this injustice.  Keep pounding on this one issue in all relevant international forums.  Starting in 2000, 130,000 South Koreans – mostly those above the age of 70 – entered the lottery system to participate in family reunions with relatives in the North.  But now, only 70,000 of these South Koreas are still alive.[8]  What is North Korea afraid of from these senior citizens?

Family reunions or another basic humanitarian goal should be the initial common rallying point for the entire world community to pressure the DPRK in order to open up more and more of North Korea to the outside world.  In terms of a longer-term strategy, the U.S. and South Korea need to continue to work on creative strategies to circumvent North Korea’s attempts to block outside information from reaching their people.  Perhaps someday there could be a Helsinki-style accord for the DPRK but until then North Korea has to demonstrate it can be trusted with the “small stuff” first before moving on to bigger and more complex agreements.

By Phil Eskeland, Executive Director for Operations and Policy at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from the OSCE/Horst Sturm.


[1] All nations except Albania.

[2] However, supporters of the agreement highlighted that the Helsinki Accords included language in the first principle on sovereign equality that “frontiers can be changed, in accordance with international law, by peaceful means and by agreement.”

[3] John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War:  A New History, (New York:  The Penguin Press, 2005), page 190.

[5], page 3 of President Ford’s briefing book.

Return to the Peninsula

Stay Informed
Register to receive updates from KEI