ICAS Special Contribution


Bring Up Human Rights in Talks With North Korea

Donald Kirk

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

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[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge the special contribution with written permission from the author to ICAS.

Bring Up Human Rights in Talks With North Korea

Donald Kirk*

19 September 2005

The Asian Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON -- Renewed six-party talks in Beijing on North Korea's nuclear weapons program are coming to resemble the bad second act of a boring courtroom drama. North Korea and the United States are repeating themselves to distraction. The North says it's entitled to nuclear power for peaceful purposes, and the United States says no way. The underlying point, as everyone knows, is that North Korea is not convinced it must relinquish its nuclear weapons -- and wants to bring all the other parties round to this view.

Perhaps it's time for the U.S. to bring up North Korea's gross violations of human rights to the table again. Leftists in Washington and Seoul say this is just a cynical stratagem for "neo-cons" to beat up on Seoul. But it is that approach that is cynical. North Korea's 22 million people are oppressed beyond belief. Since the talks between the two Koreas, the U.S., Japan, Russia and China are not accomplishing much, why not publicize Pyongyang's appalling record.

North Korea's strategy is all too obvious. The North is pressing for reinstatement of the 1994 Clinton administration agreement that called for construction, at the expense largely of South Korea and Japan, of twin light water nuclear energy reactors. North Korea shut down its complex building warheads with plutonium. But then it violated its word with a secret program for developing warheads with highly enriched uranium. Since the breakdown of the agreement, North Korea boasts that it's again producing nukes at the Yongbyon complex, even though it denies it has had anything to do with highly enriched uranium.

The problems with North Korea's denials are that its officials acknowledged their involvement with highly enriched uranium to a U.S. delegation visiting Pyongyang in 2002. Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has also admitted that the rogue physicist A. Q. Khan, the "father" of the Pakistan bomb, provided the North with centrifuges as well as technology for fabricating warheads with uranium at their core.

North Korea's plan is to go on with denials and demands in an effort at deepening differences between the U.S. and South Korea. Seoul's government has for the past few years pursued a policy of North-South reconciliation that makes it easy pickings for Pyongyang.

Considering the depth of the impasse, might the United States, contrary to all advice, inject another pressing issue into the talks -- human rights?

The conventional view is that the United States and others at the table should simply ignore this issue for fear of offending North Korea. The leader of the U.S. team, Christopher Hill, has forcefully rejected North Korean claims to have a right to nuclear power. But he has just as firmly said that talk about human rights is off the table.

That strategy may have been useful in the first round when Mr. Hill appeared to cling to the hope that North Korea might actually sign on to a "statement of principles" that called for abandonment of all nuclear weapons. Mr. Hill at the time was obsessed with demonstrating to the South Koreans that the United States was doing all possible to come to terms with the North, just as Seoul wanted.

Mr. Hill made one huge concession by agreeing to one-on-one meetings with the North Korean team leader Kim Gye Gwan. This meant abandoning insistence on talking to the North Koreans in the presence of the other four participants in the talks. The reason for the concession was to mollify South Korean, which had accused the United States of ruining any chance of agreement with its rhetorical attacks on North Korea. Pyongyang has never forgotten, nor forgiven, President Bush for including North Korea in a global "axis of evil," along with Iraq and Iran. Condoleezza Rice is also loathed for labeling North Korea among one of the world's "outposts of tyranny" even before she became secretary of state.

A deep irony of the U.S. strategy for reconciliation -- that is, reconciliation between Washington and Seoul -- is that Ms. Rice herself has softened her tone toward North Korea. A day after Jay Lefkowitz, the newly appointed U.S. envoy on human rights in North Korea, answered a question on linking food shipment to human rights progress by saying "we are looking into all aspects of our relations," Ms. Rice said bluntly, "We don't use food as a weapon." This despite her admission that there were "concerns about the ability to monitor the uses of food aid."

The South Korean argument for placing human rights off limits is that first it's necessary to reconcile with Pyongyang. South Korean leaders, beginning with former president Kim Dae Jung, who made his Sunshine policy the centerpiece of his presidency from 1998 to 2003, believe Seoul can turn to human rights in the North after fully normalizing relations.

This argument fails on at least two counts. First, as the North Korean regime has grown richer, according to the World Food Program, the rich-poor gap is deepening. More than 200,000 people remain in prison camps, and hunger and disease may again reach the same scale as in the late 1990s, when two million people are believed to have died. Second, "normal" relations between North and South Korea are not going to happen. The North is not opening up to "normal" mail, phone calls, family visit exchanges, or even viable rail and road links. It seems more than a little heartless to suggest that North Korea's suffering millions just hang on, be patient, and we'll get around to you after shoring up the strength and power of your worst oppressors in Pyongyang.

Under the circumstances, the current talks should provide an excellent forum for confronting North Korea with its egregious abuses of human rights. A strong statement by Mr. Hill might bring the current round of "talks" to a hasty halt, with North Koreans stamping out of the room, but at least he would have made a point in an influential forum.

Since the talks are going nowhere and the North is not about to make concessions, what is there to lose? The talks will not have been a complete failure if the United States can turn them into a chance to demonstrate to both Koreas, and others at the table, the need for urgent action on North Korean human rights abuses. It would link this issue directly to the vast economic aid program that the U.S. and South Korea is dangling as bait in the forlorn hope of getting the North to give up its nukes.

© 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

* Donald Kirk, ICAS Fellow, has been covering political, diplomatic and economic issues on the Korean peninsula since 1972.

This page last updated 9/19/2005 jdb

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