North Korea: Why Human Rights Must Come First, Editorial in World Affairs Journal

This article, as it appeared World Affairs Journal, is based on remarks Carl Gershman delivered at the conference “North Korea: The Human Condition and Security Nexus,” held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., on February 19, 2016. 

The second anniversary of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry report on human rights in North Korea occurred on February 17, soon after North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket in violation of international sanctions banning the use of ballistic missile technology. The launch, which followed North Korea’s fourth nuclear test the previous month, was immediately condemned by the U.N. Security Council and by Secretary Ban Ki-moon, who said the launch was “deeply deplorable.” The Secretary General also called on North Korea to “halt its provocative actions,” after which North Korea’s dictator defiantly pledged to launch additional rockets. 

The crisis has raised new questions about how to deal with the threat from North Korea. Until now, the conventional policy approach has separated security issues from human rights concerns.  Raising human rights problems in North Korea has been seen as provocative and a sure way to scuttle efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem through negotiations. But there is now a growing skepticism about the possibility that negotiations with North Korea can produce meaningful results. 

The problem is not just that many people have given up on the idea of getting China to use the leverage it has with North Korea to bring it to the negotiating table. Like the earlier effort during the Bush Administration to denuclearize North Korea through the Six-Party talks, playing the China card has become the diplomatic equivalent of a wild-goose chase. The reason is that for the regime in Pyongyang, the nuclear issue is an existential matter. It sees having nuclear weapons as the key to its survival and believes that negotiating them away would be suicidal, no matter what economic and political benefits it might receive in return.

The basic issue, therefore, is not transactional but has to do with the nature of the North Korean regime. North Korea is the most oppressive example in the world today of what the former Soviet dissident, Natan Sharansky, has called a “fear society,” meaning a country where the government maintains control by instilling fear in the hearts of everyone it rules over. What is different about North Korea is that it is the regime itself that is afraid—afraid of the modern world, afraid of the free Korean society across its border, afraid of its own people. The fact that such a paranoid regime uses the possession of nuclear weapons to try to guarantee its survival makes it, to say the least, exceedingly dangerous.

Reflecting the views of many people who follow the North Korea problem, the former US Ambassador to China Winston Lord said recently that “We need a radically different approach,” one that is based on the understanding that the North Korean system is a closed dynastic dictatorship, and that until it becomes a more open and normal country, it will represent a security threat to its neighbors and the world. 

The idea that international security and human rights are intimately linked is not new. It was the core belief of Dr. Andrei Sakharov, the physicist and Soviet dissident who said in his Nobel Lecture in 1975 that disarmament and international security “are inconceivable without an open society with freedom of information, freedom of conscience, the right to publish and the right to travel” freely. In an essay he wrote in 1977 for the Norwegian Nobel Committee, he noted that the “human rights issue is not simply a moral one, but also a paramount, practical ingredient of international trust and security.”

There are two necessary components of a policy to deal with such a regime. The first is to contain North Korea by taking steps to deter its aggressive behavior, among them the imposition of comprehensive sanctions and the deployment in South Korea of an effective system of ballistic missile defense. The second is to change it by defending the human rights of the North Korean people. That means doing what we can to end their isolation from the outside world, to empower them, and to give them a voice in determining their country’s future. Only then might there emerge—from within the country’s elite class—people who realize that the current system is doomed and who want to seek a peaceful way to a better future. It’s time, therefore, for specialists in both the security and human rights areas of policy begin a common discussion of how to fashion a more integrated approach to dealing with North Korea.

Fifteen years ago, when the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea was launched in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the group’s founding chair Dr. Fred Ikle said that it would focus on internal liberalization in North Korea as a way to address the concern over state-sponsored terrorism.  Ikle, the author of How Nations Negotiate and other works on international policy, was America’s leading defense intellectual who understood the need for an approach that would link issues of international security to efforts that encourage greater openness and freedom in closed societies. “In the end,” he said, “democracy and the rule of law, desirable in and of themselves, are also a guarantee of peace and security.” That is the comprehensive vision that must now guide US policy on North Korea.