Importance of Human Rights in North Korea Negotiations

By Daniel Hurley

On December 10 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions on three senior North Korean officials in response to the regime’s ongoing violation of human rights within its borders. According to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, the individuals sanctioned had a role in directing departments that perpetrate the regime’s “brutal state-sponsored censorship activities, human rights violations and abuses, and other abuses in order to suppress and control the population”. [1] This action was taken in accordance with the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act (NKSPEA) of 2016.

Exactly a week following the Treasury Department’s decision, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution (sponsored by Japan and the European Union) that condemned North Korea’s “systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights”, and cited the regime’s diversion of resources into pursuing nuclear and ballistic weapons development at the expense of providing needed welfare for its population. [2] This resolution comes on the heels of the U.S.’s failure to secure enough Security Council votes to discuss North Korea’s human rights record in the body a week ago.

The steps taken by the United Nations and Trump Administration sends a strong signal to the Kim regime that the international community does not overlook the condition of its human rights culture. While nuclear nonproliferation on the Korean Peninsula is the priority issue in ongoing negotiations, the improvement of human rights conditions within North Korea is—rightly so—a key component of the discussions.

Integrating human rights issues into negotiations revolving around global security concerns is an advantageous foreign policy strategy, for two reasons. First, the inclusion of stipulations mandating improvements in a state’s human rights culture serves as an additional mechanism of containment of the state being subjected to sanctions. Although economic sanctions (a mechanism of containment) may be lifted if nuclear nonproliferation concerns are swiftly addressed, for example, sanctions could still be applied to the target state if human rights continue to be abused. This added measure of containment would provide nations feeling threatened by the target state with an additional means through which to constrain the capabilities of the target state for a longer period of time, as historically repressive societies do not abandon their oppressive culture for democratic alternatives as swiftly as giving up certain material means, such as weapons systems. Changing ingrained cultural traditions and norms is a slower process, and thus provides more time for external control to be imposed.

Moreover, from an idealistic standpoint, advancing human rights abuses in international negotiations can lead to the eventual transformation of repressive, adversarial states into more democratic, “friendly” members of the international community, which in turn bolsters global security. If individuals in oppressive societies were granted greater democratic freedoms — including free elections, voting rights, and heightened political inclusiveness — the government leadership and foreign policies of those countries could become more democratic subsequently, as oppressive leaders are voted out office by the enfranchised public and replaced with individuals who (hopefully) espouse progressive, democratic values and foreign policy goals. With the institution of more “friendly” leadership, states once considered adversaries of the Western world (i.e. the United States) would be perceived as less threatening following this internal transfiguration. This improvement in global security stems from the grassroots improvement of human rights conditions within these repressive states, which would be mandated in negotiations.

Drawing from these two points, if the United States wishes to further pursue its containment strategy of North Korea in order to continually weaken the threat it poses to U.S. national security, it would be wise to include provisions in future agreements that tie sanctions relief to the Kim regime’s active improvement of human rights conditions in the country. Moreover, if the transformation of North Korea into a democratic society is a key priority of the international community (excluding a few countries, such as China), then mandating human rights improvements in future negotiations could potentially lead to the alteration of North Korea’s government leadership and foreign policies to reflect those of Western societies. With this alteration, U.S. national security would be enhanced, as a previously central threat to its homeland security would be considered less so.

Of course, these two points are only objective opinions stemming from both realist and liberal foreign policy theoretical logic. The degree to which the intended results of these two policy suggestions manifest themselves is uncertain and highly debatable. However, in the final analysis, improving human rights conditions globally—especially in oppressive societies seen as threats to global security — pays dividends for people especially living within oppressive states, and also states feeling insecure by the actions of these threatening countries.

Daniel Hurley is a senior at The College of New Jersey, where he studies Political Science. His areas of interest are international human rights, national security, and U.S. foreign policy.

Works Cited



Image Source: