March 11th, 2017
By Davis Florick – Senior Fellow
While the defense budget of every state is linked to its economy, North Korea has a more complicated relationship of military and money than most. For over fifty years, it has had a defense budget hovering at 20% of the state’s gross domestic product (GDP), if not greater. Consequently, with regularity Pyongyang has been faced with the decision of “butter or guns?” It has consistently chosen guns. In this environment, humanitarian abuses have become the all too common third leg of North Korea’s domestic politics. To ensure regime preservation despite incredible hardship, political prisons, forced movement of people, and public executions have become familiar themes of daily life in the Hermit Kingdom. In this closed society with its emphasis on self-reliance, known as Juche, the interconnectedness of defense, economics, and humanitarian abuses is unique in the world. In negotiating through this morass, the Trump Administration has an opportunity to change how the international community views North Korea. While the issue of nuclear proliferation has enabled Washington and its partners to build support for sanctions against Pyongyang, placing greater emphasis on the humanitarian tragedy could garner support from other states and organizations as well. Diversifying US concerns with respect to North Korea is not only pragmatic politically, but also carries a moral responsibility that warrants a new approach.
For decades, Washington has made Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program the focus of its attention. Although there have been other misdeeds including conventional acts of aggression, missile developments, and money laundering that have drawn a degree of concern from the US and others, no single issue has been as destabilizing or as polarizing as nuclear acquisition. While Kim Il-sung began initial probing into nuclear capabilities as early as the 1950’s, the program began to gain substantial international attention in 1992 when the International Atomic Energy Agency became involved. In the quarter century since, there have been three major efforts to bring Pyongyang back from the brink (the 1994 Agreed Framework, the 2000 Secretary of State Albright visit, and Six Party Talks from 2003-2009); with each incident, Washington’s emphasis on reversing the North’s nuclear weapons program was further solidified at the expense of other concerns. Although the focus on the Hermit Kingdom’s research and development efforts was, in many ways, both prudent and inevitable, it has overshadowed the Kim family’s other activities. By using nuclear proliferation as a rallying cry for international support, Washington has inadvertently neglected Pyongyang’s deplorable humanitarian record.
In the twenty-five years since North Korea’s nuclear weapons program impacted the global conscience, the state’s human rights situation has only worsened. Arguably the most tragic and well-known element of North Korea’s humanitarian violations is the political prison camp system known as kwanliso. Six facilities are likely in operation, often described as modern day Nazi concentration camps, with an assortment of prison camps and other detention centers used to augment the system. Reports indicate the largest political prison camp, Camp 16, has potentially been enlarged in recent years, which could be explained through Kim Jong-un’s crackdown on defectors and their associates as well as his continuing purges. Similarly, the surface area of Camp 25 has nearly doubled in size in the last decade. These camps, as large as 15 by 15 miles, also serve an economic function by providing forced labor for mining, logging, and other activities. Camp 16, located in North Hamgyong Province where Korean leaders have sent undesirables for centuries, also happens to be located near the P’unggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility. In total, perhaps as many as 250,000 victims are imprisoned in these camps. Given the human tragedy that exists in North Korea, few states could reasonably oppose stronger sanctions on Pyongyang for its humanitarian abuses. Unfortunately, the political prison camps are but one in a long line of human security concerns being raised under Kim Jong-un.
On one hand, there is clearly an ethical argument to be made for linking the current sanctions regime to humanitarian violations. The US has long been an advocate for human rights and has promoted the responsibility to protect. Through US policies, Department of State diplomatic engagements and reports, and military conflicts, the US has committed itself to supporting human rights. While some of Washington’s past and current policies have been criticized for not going far enough to support humanitarian causes, Pyongyang’s actions present one of the worst instances of systemic abuse in recent memory and have been, in a sense, permitted to continue unabated by an exclusive US focus on weapons. North Korea provides an ideal opportunity to reorient US policy toward a more proactive role. Indeed, opposing Pyongyang’s abuses could serve as an inflection point for Washington. By reinvigorating US foreign policy, the Trump Administration could potentially do much to improve standards of living in one of the worst places on Earth.
On the other hand, pragmatism should encourage Washington to pursue a broader, human rights-based justification for the current and increasing sanctions program against Pyongyang. At present, the US has generated considerable support for its opposition to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The United Nations Security Council have passed six resolutions, the latest in November 2016, condemning Pyongyang’s research and development efforts, which, most notably, have required Chinese and Russian acceptance. However, as problems with the latest Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, held in 2015, might indicate, there are growing discrepancies globally about non-proliferation. In the particular case of Pyongyang, there is always the risk the international community will grow fatigued from over a quarter century of failed attempts to curtail North Korea’s nuclear program. Thus, by building a stronger case for sanctions based on the Kim regime’s deplorable human rights record, the Trump Administration may be able to build support from a more diverse range of constituencies. As a result, there is a greater likelihood the US will be able to maintain pressure on North Korea, regardless of its nuclear program. Considering that the political dynamics on the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia, and the international community are constantly evolving, having a stronger footprint to use against North Korean actions is pragmatic.
To place greater pressure on Pyongyang for its humanitarian abuses, Washington should emphasize the assistance North Korea is receiving from abroad. Specifically, Kim Jong-un has become dependent on sending North Korean laborers abroad to generate income for the regime. These individuals are forced to work in conditions that people in the states they are operating in would not accept. Moreover, considerable controls are placed on their freedom of movement such that they essentially are only allowed access to their place of employment and dormitories. Perhaps most troubling is that the regime knows these people present defection risks, so their families are kept under careful surveillance back in North Korea. As a result, defecting means sentencing one’s loved ones to life in the prison camps. Sanctioning companies that utilize North Korean laborers and encouraging governments to change their practices is vital. Also, in the particular cases of China and Russia, sanctioning entities that are selling munitions or other assets to the North Korean regime is justified. These two endeavors can work to limit Pyongyang’s options and place greater pressure on Kim Jong-un.
By paying more attention to the humanitarian crisis in North Korea, the Trump Administration will be in an excellent position with respect to regional partners and the international community. Japan and South Korea are no strangers to North Korea’s radical tactics. In the early twenty-first century, Kim Jong-il confirmed to Tokyo’s Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, that Pyongyang had in fact kidnapped Japanese civilians in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Similarly, although North Korea has never officially recognized it, there is ample reporting that Pyongyang failed to repatriate prisoners of war back to Seoul. In and of themselves, these are egregious acts. Consequently, both Japan and South Korea would likely welcome an increased emphasis on humanitarian issues from the US. From an international perspective, there are regular reports from non-governmental organizations and the UN about human rights abuses. Joining in these efforts would be beneficial for the Trump Administration as it attempts to change the status quo in Northeast Asia.
Broadening the focus of sanctions to include humanitarian abuses is appropriate given the horrendous conditions in North Korea. Pyongyang’s callous disregard for its own people, which has contributed to numerous famines and consistent economic hardship, is a tragic situation. These practices should not be permissible, and any external aid to the North Korean government should be highly scrutinized. The Trump Administration can adopt a crucial role in leading the international community on the issue of Kim Jong-un’s humanitarian practices. By taking greater care to link sanctions with both nuclear and humanitarian issues, Washington will help to ensure global focus includes the latter. Given the moral and practical value of such a position, there are considerable benefits for the US to adopt this approach.
Image: Clay Gilliland