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Human rights concerns must not be an obstacle to peace with North Korea

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As the United States and South Korean governments reportedly contemplate an end-of-war declaration that could formally end the 70-year-old Korean War, some have suggested that peace with North Korea is not appropriate until certain conditions are met, including improvements in its human rights practices.

The issue of human rights often arises when the prospect of peace with North Korea is on the table. The argument goes that the global community would lose key leverage to pressure North Korea to improve its human rights, or that unconditional peace in some way legitimizes a repressive regime. As a South Korean human rights lawyer who represents North Korean defectors, and an American peace advocate lobbying Congress to support a peace agreement, we’ve seen how the ongoing state of war on the Korean Peninsula directly hurts human rights — and yet, human rights concerns are repeatedly cited as a reason not to end that war. 

That is why, on this Human Rights Day, we urge our fellow Americans and Koreans alike to view peace and human rights as mutually reinforcing, and not mutually exclusive, when it comes to North Korea.

It is clear that the status quo has been an unmitigated failure in terms of improving both rights and security. It’s been more than 70 years since the devastating violence of the Korean War settled into a fragile ceasefire. But North and South Korea remain separated by a militarized border and continue to regard one another as enemies. The North, the South and the United States spend billions of dollars preparing for resumed military conflict, which would put millions of lives in peril. 

Regular people suffer the consequences. About 70 percent of those who leave North Korea are women, and they often rely on smugglers in China or another third-party country to get them to South Korea since they cannot cross the border directly. They are especially vulnerable to exploitation, sexual violence and discrimination. South Korea’s National Security Act has been used to suppress democracy and punish those who attempt to visit family in North Korea or even speak in positive terms about the North. North Korea cites “hostile policy” from the United States and the need to protect itself as justification for its own repressive behaviors. Women are also disproportionately affected by sanctions leveled against North Korea that contribute to widespread poverty and hunger. Families have been separated by the impenetrable border for decades, and many have died before having the chance to reunite.

We believe that a peace agreement would help create the conditions to better protect the rights and security of all people. To be sure, a peace agreement is not a panacea. But we have many reasons to believe that a peace-first approach can be more successful than decades of pressure.

First, peace can sap the militarism that fuels human rights abuses. The North Korean government perceives outside governments’ attempts to address its human rights situation as ploys to undermine its security. They name those same security concerns as the top obstacle to enjoyment of human rights. They have proven themselves resilient against sanctions and pressure, and more militarism only continues to play into this dynamic. The security assurances that come from a state of peace could remove this justification for internal repression.

Second, peace could help cool the arms race and dissuade North Korea from pouring resources into weapons at the expense of its people’s human needs. (This is something we would like to see happen in the United States and South Korea, too). Pyongyang says that its nuclear ambitions are intended to be a deterrent against renewed hostilities. A peace agreement could help curb the stated justification for a weapons buildup and free up resources to address hunger and poverty.

Third, a transformed relationship that leads with peace could build confidence and trust between our governments and result in more substantive talks on a number of issues, including human rights. Further, opening more avenues for travel and people-to-people exchanges between the Koreas could increase social and economic opportunities and access to humanitarian support, and prevent the abuse that defectors and separated families face when they try to contact one another or move between borders.

As U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in the DPRK Tomás Ojea Quintana said in his 2020 report on the situation, “A declaration on peace and development in the Korean Peninsula, and a swift resolution of the armistice status, would create the atmosphere and space needed for further discussions on denuclearization, less isolation, more access, and respect for human rights.”

Peace should be the norm between countries, and it should not be conditioned or withheld for perceived leverage. Peace and human rights are not forces working against one another; they are inextricably linked. Today marks the 73rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes this dynamic by stating that the “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

So, on this Human Rights Day, we have one simple ask: Give peace with North Korea a chance.

Elizabeth Beavers is a Washington-based attorney and advocate focused on national security and human rights law and policy. She consults on efforts to demilitarize U.S. foreign policy. Follow her on Twitter @_ElizabethRB.

Su-mi Jeon is a South Korean human rights attorney and chair of the Conciliation and Peace Society. She has been engaged on North Korean human rights issues for almost 20 years. Follow her on Twitter @SumiJEON_CPS.

Tags Human rights in North Korea international human rights day Kim Jong Un Korean War Moon Jae-in North Korea–South Korea relations

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