At the moment it appears that the latest clash between North Korea and the U.S. has been deescalated. Although the country made new warnings against the U.S. last week, in response to the start of annual U.S.-South Korea military drills, the nuclear threat appears less immediate since North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un reportedly decided not to proceed with an order to launch missiles at or near Guam.
However, while tensions seem somewhat abated last week, it is nonetheless important to analyze the Trump Administration’s handling of the latest crisis. Particularly, it is important to note what was not said by the Administration in its war of words, including anything about the devastating human rights situation in North Korea.
Some more cynical commentators in the U.S. have speculated that the President’s bombastic threats against North Korea were simply a diversion from the more personally pressing Russia inquiry. If that is the case—and I don’t know the answer—then President Trump would be using similar tricks to those that the Kim family and North Korea’s leadership have masterfully used for years with the international community. For North Korea’s nuclear program is, in many respects, a diversion tactic from the horrific violations of human rights law committed everyday in the country.
The North Korean regime has committed a wide range of crimes against humanity against its own people, and continues to do so. In 2014, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry concluded that human rights violations committed by North Korea were of such a “gravity, scale and nature” that they did not have any parallel in the contemporary world. Indeed, the Chairman of the Commission of Inquiry noted that the only acceptable comparison for what is ongoing in North Korea is that of Nazi-era atrocities.
The Commission of Inquiry report was key in highlighting the unfathomable plight of people in North Korea. It has helped to bring the country’s human rights abuses and ongoing legal impunity to the attention of the most powerful U.N. members, and the issue is now on the Security Council’s agenda. However, the Commission of Inquiry’s report has also helped to illuminate the critical links between North Korea’s nuclear program, the country’s human rights violations, and peace and security on the Korean peninsula.
As the report notes, North Korea’s interest in nuclear weapons and other “asymmetrical forces” stems from decreases in its traditional military capability over time, as the deplorable humanitarian situation in the country has led to a massive overall decline in the nutritional status of its population and, accordingly, potential recruits. Yet, on the other side of the equation, as the country has pursued nuclear weapons and become further ostracized from the international community, the obsession with becoming a nuclear state has profoundly affected resource allocation. As more and more resources have been diverted to advancing the nuclear program, the already desperate and precarious humanitarian position of the country has significantly worsened.
Thus, as Professor Kim Tae-woo has described it, “North Korea’s nuclear and human rights issues are like two sides of the same coin.” A humanitarian disaster has given the country nuclear ambitions; those same ambitions only further devastate the people of North Korea. Therefore, Professor Kim concludes, “[i]mproving the human rights situation in North Korea . . . is the alpha and omega of resolving all issues surrounding the North”.
That North Korea’s nuclear program is inextricably linked to its systemic violation of international human rights law is not news to the current U.S. Administration. Since the Commission of Inquiry’s report in 2014, the U.N. Security Council has increasingly identified this connection when admonishing North Korea. Indeed, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted in remarks at the U.N. in April that “North Korea feeds billions of dollars into a nuclear program it does not need while its own people starve.” Similarly, Nikki Haley commented earlier that month that “systematic human rights violations help underwrite the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”
Yet, in this latest round of altercations with North Korea, the Trump Administration seemingly forgot basic international human rights law and its own human rights rhetoric. Certainly there was a lot missing from President Trump’s off-the-cuff “fire and fury” comments (the Constitution, international law, and basic foreign policy, to name a few glaring omissions). But what was more disappointing was the failure of Secretary Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis to even note the human rights-nuclear ambition link in their recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.
The Secretaries argue that their object is denuclearization, and that the U.S. “has no interest in regime change or accelerated reunification.” However, denuclearization and peace and security on the Korean peninsula are impossible without improvements in the humanitarian situation in the country, which itself is impossible without dramatic changes in the current regime. These senior Trump Administration officials are thus hawking a plan that they should know is illogical. And that observation does not even delve into the profound irrationality of calling a policy “strategic accountability” without including criminal accountability for the grave crimes against humanity committed by the regime.
Essentially, then, by ignoring the human rights half of the equation when the world is watching and the North Korean leadership is apparently listening, the Trump Administration is setting itself up for continual failure with North Korea. The human rights abuses suffered by North Koreans are not merely a depressing footnote to the nuclear problem—they are a key element of any solution to it.
Accordingly, in holding Pyongyang to account, the Trump Administration should do just that. In calling out North Korea’s nuclear obsession, Trump and his surrogates should regularly account for the multitude of crimes committed by the regime and consistently identify the country as a human rights abuser. They should constantly link North Korea’s nuclear program to violations of human rights law. And they should utilize the international community’s repeated and explicit denunciations of the human rights situation in North Korea in their diplomatic strategy. Doing so would better address the root causes of the threat, while at the same time reminding North Korea that, despite its repeated use of nuclear misdirection, the world cares about how it treats its people.
Furthermore, a human rights-centric approach to dealing with North Korea’s machinations would likely be a far more peaceful (and less constitutionally dodgy) strategy for dealing with the country’s nuclear ambitions than the preemptive strike plans reportedly contemplated earlier this month. And as an added bonus, improving human rights in the country would likely also be helpful in the coming (or maybe even ongoing) cyber war with North Korea.
A human rights-centric approach to the North Korean nuclear program doesn’t mean abandoning sanctions or looking for radical new ways to deal with North Korea. From the Commission of Inquiry report to numerous Security Council resolutions, the evidence and the legal groundwork are already there for a robust human rights-centric approach to Trump’s dealings with North Korea. What is missing, however, is consistency in identifying the key human rights element of the nuclear threat—and an explicit highlighting of human rights concerns (criminal accountability among them) when the Administration engages with North Korea on the international stage.
Humanitarian concerns and international human rights law simply can’t be ignored or downplayed in any discussion of the North Korean nuclear problem—they are two sides of the same coin. This is certainly neither an innovative perspective nor one that is unknown to senior Trump Administration officials. But it seems this Administration forgets that important lesson when tensions flare and it undertakes a game of nuclear chicken.