North Korea: Dealing with a Human Rights Scourge and Security Threat

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea long has been recognized as one of the globe’s most difficult challenges.  For two decades concern over Pyongyang’s nuclear program has dominated international attention toward the Korean peninsula. 

What to do about The North Korea Problem has troubled three successive U.S. administrations.  The result is a tentative nuclear state seemingly ruled by an immature third-generation dictator willing to terrorize even his own family. 

Particularly unlucky are the residents of North Korea.  There never has been any question about the extraordinary nature of DPRK tyranny.  But the United Nations just released its own gruesome analysis. 

The finding is simple: “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed” by the DPRK.  “In many instances, the violations found entailed crimes against humanity based on State policies.” 

As I point out in my latest article in National Interest:

Yet the challenge facing the U.S. and other nations regarding human rights in the North is a lot like the security problem:  what to do?  The Kim dynasty has demonstrated no interest in disarming.  Nor has it ever hinted at the slightest interest in treating the North Korean people better.  Arguing that human rights should be an international priority doesn’t change matters.

Trying to convince the isolated and militaristic regime that a more pacific policy is in its interest so far hasn’t worked.  Trying to convince the same leadership that it also should dismantle the political system that it dominates is even less likely to succeed. 

However, the human rights report might be more effectively directed at another nation, the People’s Republic of China.  The PRC is North Korea’s chief enabler.  (For a time South Korea shared that title, with its bountiful subsidies as part of the Sunshine Policy.)  

The reasons are understandable if not necessarily laudable.  Washington’s push for Beijing to press the DPRK more seriously, repeated during Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent China visit, founders on the PRC’s perception of its interests. 

The North is unpredictable, except for always being ever unreasonable and difficult.  Nevertheless, Beijing fears destabilizing the peninsula more than it fears North Korea nuclearizing the peninsula.

To change China’s position requires addressing that government’s concerns, particularly regarding the impact of a united Korea allied with America at a time when the U.S. appears committed to a policy of soft containment.  The DPRK’s growing reputation as a human rights outlaw might help.

Beijing obviously is sensitive to the issue, given its own human rights failings.  Nevertheless, there is no comparison between the two nations.  China also has much at stake in the global order, including its reputation, which will be tarnished if it continues to be widely seen as the only reason the Kim regime survives.

Simply bashing Pyongyang won’t be enough.  Washington needs to develop a positive package for a reform North Korean leadership: peace treaty, trade, aid, and integration.  The U.S. also should involve South Korea and Japan.

This approach should directed as much at the PRC as North Korea.  Even Chinese officials frustrated with the DPRK tend to blame the U.S. for creating the hostile threat environment which led the North to develop nuclear weapons.

The PRC still might decide the price of cooperating with America is too high.  But the allies have no better alternative approach.  The DPRK has spent recent years alternating whispers of sweet nothings with screams of blood-curdling threats, tossing in occasional missile and nuclear tests for good measure.  Nothing suggests that the younger Kim has abandoned brinkmanship as Pyongyang’s preferred policy and decided to negotiate away his nation’s most important weapon.

Some day monarchical communism will disappear from the Korean peninsula.  It will do so sooner if China uses its considerable influence—and threatens to withdraw its even more important aid—to press Pyongyang to reform.  The UN’s scathing report on DPRK human rights practices might help win Beijing’s cooperation.