With denuclearization stalled, Biden should focus on human rights reform in North Korea

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Last week’s joint statement between President Biden and Moon Jae-in, president of the Republic of Korea (ROK), opened with a declaration of the “shared vision for a region governed by democratic norms, human rights, and the rule of law at home and abroad.”

It was a leaner, but equally apt, version of the U.S.-Japan joint statement after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s visit in April: “An ocean separates our countries, but commitments to universal values and common principles, including freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law, international law, multilateralism, and a free and fair economic order, unite us.” 

(Of course, all that tripartite values-sharing hasn’t yet overcome the painful legacy of the historical period when both Asian states were ruled by dictatorial regimes and the more powerful one subjugated the weaker. Instead, Tokyo and Seoul today are more likely to proclaim that “the ally of my ally is my enemy.”)   

The Biden-Moon statement said common — universal — values require activism: “As democracies that value pluralism and individual liberty, we share our intent to promote human rights and rule of law issues, both at home and abroad.”

It was not clear whether the unification-supporting ROK leader considers North Korea “home” as part of the Korean Peninsula, or “abroad” since the two states are separated at the 38th Parallel by a cruelly-different system of rule in the North. Either way, North Korea qualifies for some serious governance reform.

Yet, despite the Biden administration’s emphasis on human rights in purported contrast to former President Trump’s record, neither Biden nor Moon mentioned the ongoing humanitarian disaster that defines North Korea — or any desire to “promote human rights and rule of law” there.

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the State Department, and the United Nations all have reported on the humanitarian catastrophe in North Korea. Human Rights Watch, which calls it “one of the world’s most repressive states,” said that the U.N. report “concluded the government committed crimes against humanity, including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, and other forms of sexual violence, and forced abortion.”

Yet, it was the decidedly unempathetic Donald Trump who made a series of major speeches in 2017 and 2018 calling the world’s attention to the monstrous tragedy under way in North Korea. 

In September 2017, he told the United Nations: “No one has shown more contempt for other nations and for the well-being of their own people than the depraved regime in North Korea. It is responsible for the starvation deaths of millions of North Koreans and for the imprisonment, torture, killing and oppression of countless more.” 

To illustrate the perverse “nature of the regime,” he stated, “We were all witness to the regime’s deadly abuse when an innocent American college student, Otto Warmbier, was returned to America only to die a few days later.”

Two months on, Trump addressed the South Korean National Assembly, saying: “An estimated 100,000 North Koreans suffer in gulags, toiling in forced labor and enduring torture, starvation, rape and murder on a constant basis.” 

Finally, in his 2018 State of the Union speech, Trump said: “[N]o regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea.” He dramatized the point by featuring a tearful, crutch-waving North Korean defector, and again mentioned Pyongyang’s barbaric treatment of Otto Warmbier. The next day, he hosted a group of other North Koreans who had fled Kim Jong Un’s prison state, providing an Oval Office platform to relate their grotesque ordeals. 

Such unpleasant matters were not mentioned at the Biden-Moon conference — nor at the earlier Trump-Moon meetings — because Moon has his own agenda with North Korea and it does not include confrontation. Nor did Trump, after his six-month human rights blitz, ever return to the issue. It had served his purpose, providing leverage over Kim as an essential component of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, along with tough economic sanctions and even tougher “fire and fury” rhetoric about “completely destroying North Korea.”

But, with nuclear negotiations seemingly reactivated, human rights was again relegated to the back burner, where it had been under all prior administrations as they focused on denuclearization. Trump even said after the 2019 Hanoi summit that he accepted Kim’s profession of innocence in the Warmbier atrocity. His early stark challenge to the Kim regime’s legitimacy had withered in the glow of the Trump-Kim “love letters” and the lingering hope that a nuclear breakthrough was still possible.  

Now, the North Korea human rights ball is in Biden’s court, where, given the president’s own humanitarian impulses, it presumably has the sustained attention of his administration. By that standard, the Biden-Moon meeting fell far short.

But the opportunity remains. Now that Biden has adopted what Moon praised as “a very calibrated, practical, gradual, step-by-step manner, and very flexible” approach to denuclearization — sounding a lot like the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” — human rights could move front and center. 

That would be consistent with Biden’s criticism of Trump for inflating Kim’s international standing with his face-to-face meetings. He told a news conference, “I would not do what had been done in the recent past. I would not give him all that he’s looking for: national, international recognition as legitimate.”

Biden has all the ammunition he needs to resume the delegitimization of the Kim regime that Trump started and then abandoned. He could begin by publicly demanding a plan for the systematic elimination of North Korea’s gulag system. He just needs to muster the will to ignore the vituperation and threats he will hear from both Pyongyang and Beijing about regime change — and the second-guessing from Asia experts who still may favor the failed policies of the past. 

Chinese leader Xi Jinping, of course, will see the handwriting on the wall regarding China’s own array of concentration camps in Xinjiang and its growing human rights abuses. That would be a good thing for a Biden administration in which Secretary of State Antony Blinken already has ratified the declaration of his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, that Beijing is committing genocide against the Uyghurs.

It would be a fitting application of communist China’s penchant for “killing the chicken to scare the monkeys.”  

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 is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Antony Blinken Donald Trump Joe Biden Kim Jong Un Mike Pompeo moon jae-in North Korea human rights abuses North Korean gulag US-South Korea relations

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