Foreign Policy

Don’t let North Korea’s nukes overshadow human rights abuses


The international community is focused on North Korea’s efforts to develop a nuclear weapon it could deliver to the United States. That is a critical objective, but Pyongyang’s deplorable human rights record and those countries and companies that enable it should be policy priorities in themselves.

A groundbreaking 2014 report by a UN commission of inquiry found “a wide array of crimes against humanity arising from policy established at the highest level of the state.”

{mosads}North Korea holds an estimated 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners in large prison camps, the report said, adding: “the unspeakable atrocities that are being committed against inmates of the kwanliso political prison camps resemble the horrors of camps that totalitarian States established during the twentieth century.”


The commission also found blatant violations related to the right to food and life, prison camps and torture, discrimination, freedom of expression, freedom of movement, and enforced disappearances.

Unfortunately, the report did not prompt the international community to act, and for that Washington deserves some of the blame by failing to lead by example. The United States waited two years to pass the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016, which mandated sanctions against Pyongyang’s atrocities. That summer, the Obama administration issued against North Korea its first human rights-related sanctions, including the designation of its leader Kim Jong Un. A second set of sanctions in December sanctioned North Korean companies involved in the exportation of workers, and in January this year targeted those responsible for internal repression and prison camps.

The regime also sends citizens overseas into terrible work conditions for little or no salary, in what amounts to slave labor. Pyongyang offers exploited workers the “opportunity” to work overseas with the promise of higher salaries, but requires the countries and companies to pay salaries directly to the regime, providing just a small percentage to the workers.

North Korean laborers likely participated in the construction of venues for the soccer World Cup in Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. The State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report noted that Russia employs up to 20,000 North Korean workers annually for its logging industry. The number of North Korean overseas workers could be as high as 120,000.

A UN Panel of Experts report in February stated that North Korea uses forced laborers to repatriate bulk cash in violation of UN sanctions, highlighting the March 2016 arrest of an overseas worker in Sri Lanka carrying $167,000 in cash, gold, and watches from Oman to China.

UN Security Council Resolution 2321 of November 2016 states that Pyongyang uses earnings from overseas labor for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, which would be a violation of previous Security Council resolutions. One expert puts North Korea’s earnings from the practice at some $500 million annually.

The Trump administration and Congress should take six steps to address such violations.

First, the Treasury Department should clarify that foreign banks providing financial services to companies using North Korean laborers risk losing access to the U.S. financial system. The State and Treasury Departments should intensify efforts to engage countries and companies, noting that Washington will sanction those who provide hard currency to the regime for its strategic programs.

Second, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley should press for a Security Council session on North Korea’s human rights violations, including a vote on the commission of inquiry’s recommendation to refer the issue to the International Criminal Court or create an international tribunal. Washington should lead this effort, which would force serial human rights enablers China and Russia to veto the resolution.

Third, the Trump administration should state that human rights will be a core element of any discussions on North Korea’s nuclear program. The United States cannot broker a deal with the Kim regime while its human rights abuses continue in the background.

Fourth, Congress should consider extending the North Korean Human Rights Act that expires later this year. Congressional action to extend this important law will maintain focus on the issue, promote information flow into North Korea, and ensure the administration makes it a priority in discussions with Pyongyang and Beijing.

Fifth, the administration should request that the Security Council sanction entities and individuals for human rights abuses, including North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un. The United States should also insist on a new prohibition on any payments to North Korea for forced labor.

Finally, the White House should reverse the Obama administration’s 2010 decision to stop naming countries in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report that employ North Korean overseas laborers.

The United States should lead the effort to shine a light on the Kim regime’s abuses, and use every tool at its disposal to end them.

Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, was an advisor to the U.S. delegation to the 2005 rounds of the Six-Party Talks and spent 17 years in the U.S. government. Follow him on Twitter @_ARuggiero.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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