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On February 28th, 2023, the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea held a conference to mark the tenth anniversary of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) into the human rights situation in North Korea. The conference was hosted and attended by experts in the field and the event aimed to reflect on both the successes and shortcomings that we have seen since the COI was released. The speakers also proposed a ‘paradigm shift’ that would put a ‘human rights up front approach’ at the centre of North Korean foreign policy, and finally, they touched on the importance of a unified Korea under a democratic and free Republic of Korea for resolving the human rights crisis.
When reflecting on how the situation has improved or worsened, one thing that the COI has been influential in is acting as a gold standard reference for the human rights situation in North Korea. With no access to the country, little on-ground information and almost no co-operation from North Korea, it was a huge challenge to complete the report. The COI was therefore crucial in revealing the severity of the situation and highlighted the urgency for change and a new diplomatic policy between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). In the past decade, one major advance has been the election of a new government in South Korea, which has made clear efforts to prioritise the advancement of human rights in North Korea. This has allowed for greater co-operation between the US and the Republic of Korea (ROK), an asset that will be invaluable when pursuing the ‘human rights up front’ strategy.
However, the situation that the COI described a decade ago, unfortunately, continues to this day and it is the case that ‘widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are still being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’. This is happening under the authority and control of the central organs of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the National Defence Commission, and the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Currently, prison camps, public executions, and cases of torture and inhumane treatment of both civilians and prisoners persist. The Songbun class system that defines the regime, exacerbates discrimination and violations of expression, and safeguards a policy that disregards all aspects of the right to freedom of movement. The government also continues to make decisions based solely on personal and political gain, often at the expense of their civilians. For example, the state uses food as a means of control over the population, directly causing the mass starvation that North Korean civilians are experiencing.
After highlighting the dire human rights situation that persists in North Korea, the speakers noted the ineffectiveness of the past three decades of US policy, which has been consistent in prioritising denuclearization wherever possible, with the protection of human rights coming second, if at all. The nuclear threat from North Korea began in the early 1990s and since then has continued to rapidly grow, with the country now having access to enriched uranium, six nuclear tests, 40-60 weapons and a vast ballistic missile force. Over this period of 30 years, successive US administrations have all adopted a foreign policy that is centred around denuclearization through diplomacy and negotiation. The dramatic growth of North Korea’s nuclear weaponry demonstrates that all these policies, which used varied tactics and incentives, have failed. The HNRK therefore used this anniversary event to present the ‘human rights up front approach’. A policy that proposes using all accessible tools of statecraft to prioritise the advancement of human rights in North Korea, which will subsequently resolve all security issues too. Firstly, it is important to recognise the urgent need for a shift in policy – if the Kim Jong Un regime remains in power, Pyongyang will not abandon its nuclear weapon program. Therefore, it is a change in regime that is required to achieve denuclearization and the best approach is to dismantle the regime from within. Denuclearization should be kept as a central goal in US policy but the way to achieve this is to provide the people of North Korea, currently living under total repression, with information about the abysmal human rights situation they currently live in, the corruption of their leadership, and the prosperity of the outside world, especially in South Korea. With this information, and with the help of outside powers, such as the US and other like-minded UN member states, the people of North Korea can strive for a free and unified Korea, that promotes democracy and the value of human rights. This policy promotes human rights most importantly for the moral obligation to do so, but also for international security. Currently, North Korea exploits its people to maintain access to the resources it needs for the nuclear programme to survive. Therefore, by adopting the ‘human rights up front approach’ and putting the advancement of human rights at the centre of US policy, the key aim of denuclearization can also be achieved.
The conference concluded with the sentiment that after employing the ‘human rights up front approach’, Korean unification under a free, prosperous, democratic, and capitalist Republic of Korea is the key to resolving the North Korean security & human rights conundrum. It is important to note that both Korean governments have declared unification as a political goal but under very different contexts. The effectiveness of the ‘human rights up front approach’, relies on Korea ultimately unifying under a democratic Republic of Korea, certainly not as a one-party state under the Kim Jong Un regime. If successful, as a unified country, both the human rights situation would be improved and, without the obstinacy of the Kim Jong Un regime, it would become easier to negotiate the denuclearisation of Korea. As the HRNK has stated, the way to achieve this is from within, using all resources available to spread crucial information regarding the severity of the human rights situation in North Korea to the country’s population. It is imperative to use all tools of statecraft to create a policy that puts human rights at the centre of the US approach. This way, an enlightened North Korean population, will encourage a regime change and ultimately unification under the Republic of Korea. At this point, the security issues that are of course of paramount importance to the US can then be negotiated and resolved, and at last, we will see the Korean population enjoying the level of human rights that they deserve.