North Korea rules out denuclearization. The West should prioritize human rights

AP Photo/Lee Jin-man
People watch a TV screen showing a news program reporting with footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea on Sept. 9, 2022. Kim stressed his country will never abandon the nuclear weapons it needs to counter the United States.

Kim Jong Un proclaimed last week that North Korea will “never give up” its nuclear weapons and that ongoing nuclear arms development is “irreversible.” With that stark declaration, he put another nail in the coffin of denuclearization and threw down the gauntlet to the West to accept reality or try to reverse it. “There will no longer be any bargaining over our nuclear power,” Kim told the Supreme People’s Assembly last week.

After decades of futile Western strivings and bitterly dashed hopes, Kim said Pyongyang will offer  “absolutely no denuclearization, no negotiation and no bargaining chip to trade.”

As it happens, just days before Kim’s speech, James Clapper, former director of national intelligence, addressed the Institute for Corean-American Studies (ICAS) and publicly stated his “heretical” view that peaceful denuclearization of North Korea is a hopeless mission: “We should recognize and acknowledge as de jure what is true de facto — North Korea is already a member of the nuclear club.”

Instead of continuing the surreal denial policy, Clapper argued, Washington and its allies should arrange relations with Pyongyang so that its nuclear program is carried out in a safe and responsible manner. He pointed to India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, which arouse no undue concern thanks to their wise management.

As Clapper expected, ICAS members mostly disagreed, noting that if the world accepted North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, South Korea and Japan would seek their own nukes, potentially followed by Taiwan and other regional states. Iran would be encouraged to persist in its relentless nuclear ambitions.  

The nonproliferation regime would disintegrate, and the world would become infinitely more dangerous. Pyongyang’s bluff-calling of the West would be validated, and other lawless regimes would be emboldened to follow its reckless power preservation example.

Pyongyang has always kept the West teetering on the edge between fear and hope, but now Kim has discarded those diplomatic games. He has escalated his brinkmanship to an entirely new level and expanded the doomsday scenarios under which North Korea would use nuclear weapons. No longer is it simply in response to a full-fledged nuclear or conventional attack on his country. Now, he says he would launch a preemptive nuclear strike if there is any military attempt to remove him from power.  

In fact, South Korean channels have openly speculated about efforts to target Kim personally as the head of the “kill chain.” Pyongyang’s response to such a decapitation attempt is to threaten nuclear war even if Kim is killed or physically incapacitated: “In case the command-and-control system over the state nuclear forces is placed in danger owing to an attack by hostile forces, a nuclear strike shall be launched automatically and immediately to destroy the hostile forces. including the starting point of provocation.”

If recognizing North Korea as a nuclear weapons state is a dangerously defeatist policy, and if preemptively initiating the use of force and risking a nuclear exchange would be unacceptable to the American public and the international community, what alternative course of action is available to Washington and its allies?

A potential non-kinetic option lies in the other major challenge North Korea poses to international law and norms: its execrable record on human rights. Pyongyang’s gulags and other humanitarian outrages violate every precept of civilized behavior, akin to the Nazi death camps during history’s darkest days.

Even the treatment of ordinary North Koreans in their day-to-day lives falls far short of normal modern governance. Human Rights Watch has found, year after year, that North Korea “remains one of the most repressive countries in the world … and maintain[s] fearful obedience in the population through threats of execution, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, and forced hard labor in detention and prison camps.”

The only fear that may be greater than what the North Korean people feel for the regime is the regime’s fear of the people. Former President Trump effectively played on this regime insecurity when, in 2017 and 2018, he delivered three major speeches exposing the horrors of Pyongyang’s repressive rule — at the United Nations, the South Korean National Assembly, and his State of the Union message — and Vice President Mike Pence met with North Korean defectors at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. 

The net impact of the new U.S. message was: Unless Kim significantly changes his ways, he is not fit to govern the nation of 25 million political prisoners in the modern civilized world. The condemnation got the regime’s attention. Contrary to academic and think tank concerns, “naming and shaming” Kim did not result in a kinetic reaction, a breaking off of communications, or an unwillingness to advance discussion of denuclearization. On the contrary, Kim was suddenly amenable to discussing at least the possibility of denuclearization, if only to get Trump off his moralistic warpath. “Love letters” and prestige-enhancing meetings with the American president were far more appealing than the human rights tirades that portrayed Kim’s regime as a world pariah.

Unfortunately, Trump’s own ego got in the way of progress and, as Clapper noted, he failed to extract sufficient concessions from Pyongyang in exchange for the global recognition his one-on-one meetings accorded Kim. In addition, Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s alarm that Kim was about to make a deal with Trump brought a summons for a woodshed session in Beijing, after which Kim’s enthusiasm to make history with Trump noticeably cooled.

Different as President Biden’s style is from Trump’s, he should reopen the U.S. focus on North Korea’s human rights record as a global concern different but equal to the nuclear weapons problem. While the nuclear threat is potentially catastrophic, it remains in the realm of possibility and is being managed relatively responsibly. But the human rights disaster is an ongoing nightmare for the North Korean people, a perennial holocaust that the world pledged it would “never again” tolerate.

Some in the West will fear that even a non-kinetic campaign for regime reform, or removal by the North Korean people, would cause Pyongyang to lash out at perceived external enemies. Yet that did not happen when Trump launched his high-visibility, high-volume attacks on the Kim regime’s legitimacy over a period of more than five months. Nor does Pyongyang include it as one of its new nuclear threat scenarios.

To add economic teeth to the human rights pressure, Biden should impose expanded secondary sanctions on China for its collusive role with Pyongyang. If denuclearization of North Korea is now a fantasy, rehumanization of the North Korean people should become the West’s priority.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Denuclearization of Korean Peninsula Human rights abuses James Clapper Kim Jong Un North Korea Sanctions against North Korea Trump

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