By Rachael Rudolph, Bryant University, Zhuhai, China

Both before and following the U.S.-North Korean summit on June 12, 2018, U.S. policymakers raised the issue of human rights in North Korea. Yet just before the summit, the U.S. government was quick to say that human rights would not be discussed in the negotiations between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jung-un.

In the past, North Korea has halted discussions and engaged in provocative actions when the issue of human rights was raised. This closed the window of opportunity the White House had to engage in dialogue on security issues.

It is true that dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea on security issues is paramount if North Koreans are to enjoy the “right to peace”. Similarly, some of the other sub-issues of the human rights agenda, including detention centers, the criminal justice system, food insecurity and human trafficking, to name a few, are critical for the security and stability of North Korea and the region.

Despite these points, the human rights issue is not essential for dialogue on denuclearization. A delinking of human rights and denuclearization is necessary now and, at a minimum, in the initial phases of dialogue on the normalization of relations between the two countries.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG

North Korea's nuclear test center was completely dismantled in accordance with the decision of the 3rd Plenary Meeting of the 7th General Conference of the Workers' Party of Korea in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang May 24, 2018.

However, this does not mean that human rights in North Korea are no longer of concern for the U.S. or the international community. Human rights will re-emerge as a point of contention for several reasons. U.S. congressional legislation links the issue (and thus sub-issues) with both security and the normalization of relations. The final agreement between Trump and Kim also requires U.S. congressional review. More recently, U.S. senators have proposed legislation to increase oversight of negotiations with North Korea.

For the concurrent dialogue on denuclearization and normalization of relations to continue, it would be better for discussions on human rights to be led by the international community than by the United States.

The international community has tried for more than a decade to engage North Korea. The North Korean government has consistently rejected those attempts and perceived them as an effort by the U.S. and the West to challenge its sovereign rights and to overthrow its regime. Perhaps part of the problem was that the approaches employed tended to challenge North Korea’s ideological and psychological security.

Could there be an ‘Asian way’ to engage Pyongyang on human rights, and on terms which are less likely to threaten the Kim regime?

One pathway forward might be to reframe the human rights issue and adopt a non-traditional security discourse. This might help the international community find some common discursive ground with North Korea on which a multilateral strategy for dialogue can be built.

Within the non-traditional security studies literature, the ‘Asia-Pacific approach’ gives primacy to dialogue and multilateral engagement to solve transnational security issues, recognizing that they cannot be solved by one state alone.

The most salient non-traditional security issues which are prevalent in North Korea are economic security, energy security and food security, all of which are interconnected and underlie most of the sub-issues of the human rights issue.

Many of the country’s defectors are leaving because of economic insecurity. Malnutrition and hunger are connected to mismanagement of the public distribution system and poor agricultural policies. The failure of agricultural policies is, in part, a product of energy insecurity and much needed sectoral reform. Energy security is vital for economic development and infrastructural reform.

These three areas contribute to the problems of irregular migration, refugees and human trafficking, and are less controversial with the North Korean government because they correspond to the country’s own human rights discourse.

Some of the more controversial sub-issues pertain to North Korea’s criminal justice system. These include the system’s lack of transparency; the criminal code for arrests, charges, interrogation tactics and investigative procedures; the mistreatment of inmates; the nature of punishment for behavioral misconduct; and corruption among prison guards and local government officials.

All of these sub-issues could be addressed through multilateral engagement with North Korea on the basis of its expressed willingness to be a party to the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime.

Of course, the extent of human rights abuses in North Korea is far longer and more complex than the list of sub-issues presented here. We must also be mindful of the risk of conflating non-traditional security and human security discourses.

However, the case of China shows that progress is possible. The gradual transformation of the Chinese human rights discourse was based on an emphasis on multilateral cooperation on non-traditional security issues.

China accepts human security as a universal goal but places greater emphasis on socioeconomic rights such as the right to food, basic living needs, and poverty alleviation than the traditional western approach, which places greater emphasis on socio-political issues.

The human rights issues cited by China correspond to the underlying factors of non-traditional security threats and the sub-issues which are salient in the human rights discourse on North Korea. This suggests that perhaps a different discursive approach is needed for North Korea, and that a multilateral strategy with Asian characteristics could be developed to engage and integrate the country into the international community.

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TNL Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)