North Korea: Why Human Rights Must Come First

Remarks by NED President Carl Gershman at the conference

“North Korea: The Human Condition and Security Nexus”

Washington, D.C.

February 19, 2016

The title of this conference and the context in which we are meeting require us to consider the link between human rights and security when dealing with North Korea.  Our meeting commemorates the second anniversary of the Commission of Inquiry report on human rights in North Korea, and it also takes place in the immediate aftermath of North Korea’s satellite launch and Kim Jong Un’s statement last Saturday that North Korea will launch additional satellites. 

Until now, policy discussions on North Korea have generally separated security issues from human rights concerns.  Raising human rights problems in North Korea has been seen as a sure way to scuttle efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem through negotiations.  But we meet at a time when there is growing skepticism about the possibility that such efforts will produce meaningful results. 

The problem is not just that many people have given up on the idea of getting China to use whatever leverage it has with North Korea to bring it to the negotiating table, and certainly no one feels that the Six-Party talks can be revived.  The basic problem is that, increasingly, people who follow North Korea problem are coming to the realization that for the regime in Pyongyang, the nuclear issue is an existential matter.  It sees having nuclear weapons as necessary for its survival, and that negotiating them away, whatever economic and political benefits it might receive as trade-offs, would be suicidal.  The recent rocket launch has been a kind of shock of recognition for those who have been reluctant to acknowledge the importance that North Korea attaches to possessing a nuclear arsenal.

The basic issue, therefore, is the nature of the North Korean regime, which brings us to the question of human rights.  The idea that human rights and international security 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.”

North Korea is the most oppressive example in the world today of what another 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.

This conference will discuss aspects of the two necessary components of a policy to deal with such a regime.  The first is to contain North Korea by deterring its aggressive behavior.  And 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 people who realize that the current system is doomed and want to seek a peaceful way to a better future. It’s important that specialists in both the security and human-rights areas of policy on North Korea have come together at this conference for a common discussion.

It’s also appropriate that this conference will conclude with the first Fred Ikle Memorial Lecture, to be delivered this evening by Michael Kirby, who chaired the Commission of Inquiry on North Korea.  Dr. Ikle was America’s leading defense intellectual and also the founding Chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.  When the Committee was launched in September 2001, soon after the 9/11 attacks, Dr. Ikle said that it would focus on internal liberalization in North Korea as a way to address the concern over state-sponsored terrorism.  “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 will guide our discussions today.