Human rights have been a point of contention in the history of US-North Korea relations. On March 13, 2019, the US Department of State released the 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The congressionally mandated reports are part of the Department of State’s requirement to fulfill its obligation to the US Congress under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Trade Act of 1974. North Korea is one such country included in the annual reports.
In the 2018 report, twenty-nine pages are dedicated to reporting on human rights violations in North Korea. Data for the report are derived from a combination of sources including reports from the United Nations, the International Bar Association, the Korean Institute for National Unification, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, Human Rights Watch, the Institute for National Security Strategy and other think tanks and academics; surveys from InterMedia and Reporters Without Border; defector testimonies; domestic, foreign and international press reports; imagery analysis; and North Korea’s penal code, laws and constitution. The report notes that North Korea’s failure to allow for the freedom of movement inside the country by foreign governments, journalists or other invited guests limits the Department of State’s ability to fully assess or confirm the reported abuses.
The rights violations cited in the report can be broken down analytically by the types of rights, namely sociopolitical, security and socioeconomic rights. Security rights are typically included in the sociopolitical rights category in the traditional human rights literature while socioeconomic rights are not recognized by the US government. Nonetheless, a breakdown as such allows for analysts to capture the philosophical debates at the heart of the tension between the US and North Korea on the rights issue and the changing nature of the rights discourse to include the human security and non-traditional security discourses in the post-2012 period. It also opens the door to potential dialogue on the rights issues where the discourse overlaps.
A summary of the sociopolitical rights violations in the report includes “rigid controls over many aspects of citizen’s lives, including arbitrary interference with privacy; censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; significant restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation; and coerced abortion.” The debate between the US and North Korea on these specific rights violations focuses on rights afforded to individuals versus individuals as citizens of the state. North Korea adopts the position that rights are afforded to individuals as citizens of the state, thereby allowing the government to regulate individuals’ rights to freedom of movement, assembly, association and practice of religion and access to information. China also adopts the position that rights are granted to individuals as citizens of the state. However, it goes one step further by making it a moral obligation of the state and government officials to uphold the rights granted to citizens by the law. As the US government notes in the report, North Korean government officials have consistently violated the rights afforded to their citizens by the law and constitution and officials are not held accountable for their violations.
North Korea should engage the US on human rights simply because it is necessary in order to move toward full, normalized relations between the two countries and to glean support among US policymakers for the lifting of sanctions.
The security rights violations highlighted in the report include “arbitrary detentions by security forces; unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government; forced disappearances by the government; torture by authorities; detention centers, including political prison camps in which conditions were often harsh and life threatening; and political prisoners.” These violations pertain primarily to a lack of due process, disregard for existing North Korean laws, and the failure of the government to adequately reform its criminal justice system including prison and correctional facilities and to hold government officials and security personnel accountable for their violations. Reform of the criminal justice system provides a foundation upon which the US government and North Korea could engage one another. Moreover, dialogue, cooperation and actual changes in the criminal justice system and conditions of the prisons, detention centers and correctional facilities would indicate some progress made toward the human rights issue. Existing US congressional resolutions note that the US president must certify that North Korea has made complete, verifiable and irreversible progress on the human rights issue in order for some of the unilateral sanctions to be waived.
Finally, the notable socioeconomic rights mentioned in the report includes “severe restrictions on worker rights, including denial of the right to organize independent unions, domestic forced labor through mass mobilizations and as a part of the re-education system; forced labor conditions faced by DPRK overseas contract workers; and trafficking in persons.” These issues are of particular importance since North Korea’s official human rights discourse emphasizes socioeconomic rights. Human trafficking is an area where both the US and North Korea could engage in dialogue. The US government regularly provides assistance to countries’ efforts to combat human trafficking. Forced labor of the foreign overseas workers is less likely to be an issue on which the two can engage in dialogue due to it being a source of revenue for the North Korean government. It is unlikely for North Korea to engage in dialogue on the other issues due to their domestic nature. Nonetheless, reform of existing laws and the government actually holding officials accountable for their abuse and violation of the laws would address some of the underlying factors contributing to these rights abuses.
The question begging is: Why should North Korea engage the US given the philosophical differences between the two countries on human rights? North Korea should engage the US on human rights simply because it is necessary in order to move toward full, normalized relations between the two countries and to glean support among US policymakers for the lifting of sanctions. US policymakers have taken bipartisan action ranging from public laws to resolutions calling for North Korea to respect and protect the human rights of their people as they are enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. They have consistently asserted that human rights must be a key element in negotiations between the US and North Korea and incorporated as part of any comprehensive agreement between the two countries. A true change in the nature of relations between America and North Korea depend on engagement of issues beyond denuclearization. As Victor Cha notes in The Bloomberg, human rights are critical for successful negotiations.