At the end of last week, the United States announced that President Joe Biden will host South Korean President Moon Jae-in for in-person meetings in Washington on May 21. The statement from the White House Spokesperson said the visit “will highlight the ironclad alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea, and the broad and deep ties between our governments, people, and economies.”
Significantly, the meeting with President Moon will be only the second in-person meeting since Biden was sworn in as President just over three months ago. This early meeting of the two presidents in Washington is a clear indication of the importance of ties between our two countries. This was also highlighted just a few weeks ago when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made their first foreign visit to Seoul and Tokyo. A few days later a trilateral meeting of the national security advisors of the United States, South Korea, and Japan met in Annapolis to discuss a “wide range of regional issues and foreign policy priorities, including maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.” Earlier this week, Secretary of State Blinken and his South Korean counterpart Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong held a bilateral meeting in London on the margins of a meeting of the Group of Seven foreign ministers.
Biden Administration’s Review of Korea Policy
The meeting with President Moon was announced at about the same time that the Biden administration also announced the completion of a months-long review of policy toward Korea and the relationship with South Korea in light of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. When Donald Trump assumed the presidency in January 2017, the Obama Administration warned the incoming president that North Korea was one of the most significant security challenges facing the United States.
In a review of North Korea at the beginning of the Biden administration, Arms Control Association analysts gave an appraisal of Trump’s policy toward the North Korea—initially “fiery rhetoric and military threats, followed by high-profile summits that failed to produce lasting results or an effective negotiating process for denuclearization and peace-building.” This left the incoming Biden administration facing a North Korea that “continued to enhance its nuclear and missile arsenals, and it remains one of the world’s most difficult and dangerous proliferation challenges.”
The conclusions of the Biden administration’s policy review and details of the process for conducting the review are classified, but the White House spokesperson made general comments to journalists about the conclusions of the review. She said the administration “is open to and will explore diplomacy.” She also said the diplomatic goal is the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but she lowered expectations and emphasized the difficulty of the task by adding “with a clear understanding that the efforts of the past four administrations have not achieved this objective.”
The United States will take a “calibrated practical approach,” Psaki explained:
Our policy will not focus on achieving a grand bargain, nor will it rely on strategic patience. Our policy calls for a calibrated practical approach that is open to and will explore diplomacy with the DPRK, and to make practical progress that increases the security of the United States, our allies and deployed forces.
The review of North Korea policy was focused on security issues. Although human rights issues involving North Korea were not discussed in any of the brief public comments made about the results of the policy review, the administration’s actions thus far indicate a tougher and more principled approach on human rights in North Korea.
Expect a Tougher Approach on Human Rights
At the time of his first foreign visit as Secretary of State, Antony Blinken was interviewed by South Korea’s KBS (Korea Broadcasting System). At that time the North Korea policy review was still underway. When asked about the North, Blinken said, “President Biden has been very clear from day one that he was determined to put human rights and democracy back at the center of American foreign policy. North Korea, unfortunately, is one of the most egregious human rights situations that we know around the world.” In remarks delivered in Seoul at the beginning of his visit, Blinken said that “Secretary Austin and I are here to reaffirm the United States commitment to the alliance, but also to build on it with you. We want to achieve our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, anchored by respect for human rights, for democracy, for the rule of law.”
Earlier, in his first appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee after his appointment as Secretary of State, Blinken was specifically asked about appointment of the Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Issues, a position mandated by the North Korea Human Rights Act. The position was not filled for the entire four years of the Trump administration. Blinken told the Committee he felt “strongly” about the need to fill that position. In a non-attributed discussion with journalists of The Washington Post, a senior Biden administration foreign affairs official declined to comment on the impact that the appointment of a special envoy for North Korea human rights might have in dealings with the North on security issues, but the official noted the “statutory requirement” for such an official to be appointed.
In his speech to a joint session of the Congress marking the 100th day since his inauguration as President, Biden called the nuclear weapons programs of North Korea and Iran a “serious threat to America’s security and world security,” and he said the United States would respond with “diplomacy and stern deterrence.” North Korean officials responded with denunciations of the U.S. “hostile policy” toward the North and threats that the U.S. will face a “very grave situation” with Pyongyang. A statement from the DPRK Foreign Ministry said the U.S. “has now insulted the dignity of our supreme leadership. This becomes an evident sign that it is girding itself up for an all-out showdown with the DPRK, and this is also a clear answer to how we should approach the new administration in the U.S.” The vehemence of Pyongyang’s denunciation seemed disproportionate to Biden’s straight forward statement.
The Human Rights Issue at the Forthcoming Biden-Moon Summit
Relations between Washington and Seoul cover a wide range of security, political, and economic issues, and those involve shared interests in which both sides see cooperation in their common interest. North Korea human rights is one issue that is more complicated, and greater focus on human rights by the Biden administration could be a source of friction in the relationship between Seoul and Washington.
The South Korean administration has been anxious to improve North-South relations, and currently there is a sense of urgency with less than a year remaining in President Moon Jae-in’s term. Seoul has been anxious to encourage cooperation with the North, but Pyongyang has been less interested in seeking an accommodation with the Moon government. The South has clearly backed away from pressing the North on human rights. Its failure to support UN resolutions critical of North Korea’s human rights record and returning two North Korean fishermen accused of murder without first giving them due process consistent with South Korean law and previous practice are only two of the most recent such actions.
The issue of balloons carrying leaflets from South to North is another issue that shows Seoul deferentially responding to criticism from Pyongyang. In June 2020 “First Sister” Kim Yo-jong (sister of Kim Jong-un and senior North Korean official) blasted the South with a vicious screed for allowing defectors/refugees to send anti-regime leaflets via balloon into the North. The Moon Jae-in government announced it would introduce legislation to ban balloons carrying leaflets. The after-the-fact assertion that this action was necessary because of safety concerns regarding balloons in the border areas does not hold up. The government announcement came less than 24 hours after Madame Kim unleashed her blast against the South on balloons. Furthermore, there has been little effort to catalog instances of safety problems from past balloon launches.
The South continues to “tug the forelock” toward the North on the leaflet issue. The legislation banning leaflet-carrying balloons was adopted by the National Assembly, and the national government has been quick to enforce the newly adopted law. When a defector organization, in a gesture of civil disobedience, announced last week that it had launched leaflet balloons, the Commissioner General of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency called the action an “intolerable provocation” and ordered a “swift and thorough investigation.” During this same time, Kim Yo-jong was again quick to issue a denunciation of the South for not stopping balloon launches.
U.S. Congress Urges Family Reunions for U.S. Citizens and North Korean Relatives
Another North Korea human rights issue involving the United States is the humanitarian concern for Korean Americans who have close relatives in North Korea whom they have not seen for more than half a century. As many as a hundred thousand Korean Americans have relatives in North Korea. Numbers are much larger in South Korea, where there has been only modest success in bringing a few families together. North Korea seems particularly obstinate when it comes to humanitarian issues.
Since the year 2000 only about three thousand South Koreans have been able to meet in a very carefully monitored setting with relatives from the North. Many times that number have registered to express interest in meeting with their relatives in North Korea. There are also many elderly Korean Americans who seek the same opportunity to meet with family members in the North, but they are not included in the South Korean pool of eligible participants. There has been no positive response from the North to support of reunions between Korean Americans and their relatives in the North.
The United States Congress has signaled supported for efforts to bring Korean Americans together with their North Korean relatives. The Divided Families Reunification Act (2019-2020—H.R. 1771), introduced by Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-NY), directs the Secretary of State and the Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights to seek to bring together Korean Americans and their North Korean relatives and to consult with Korean American organizations on this issue. The legislation was approved in the House of Representatives by a vote of 391-0, but it was not considered in the Senate.
Similar congressional action is underway in the current session of Congress. The House Committee on Foreign Affairs approved House Resolution 294 introduced by Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA) and others urging the United States and the North Korean governments to permit divided Korean American families to meet with their North Korea relatives. The resolution is not legislation, but it does express Congressional views. It has received attention in South Korea and in the constituencies of proponents of the resolution.
As Special Envoy for North Korea human rights, I consulted with Korean American groups, the South Korean Red Cross, and North Korean officials on this issue. It is not an easy issue because North Korea has strictly limited such contacts, and South Korea has so many of its own citizens with family in the North that including American citizens in their occasional meetings would be politically difficult. This is a very challenging humanitarian issue, and the North has shown little interest or incentive to resolve it or even use it in discussions for leverage with the United States.
The human rights issues involving North Korea are not easy to resolve, and differences in approach between the Biden administration and the Moon Jae-in administration make the problem more complex. The security issues involving North Korea are still the major problem involving South Korea and the United States, and there are important international economic issues as well. It is unlikely that President Biden and President Moon will spend a great deal of time on human rights problems. That certainly does not mean these issues will fade, and these problems will continue to require serious effort of both governments in their relationships with the North.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights (2009-2017). The views expressed here are his own.
Image from Uri Tour’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.