The US Department of State issued Notices of Funding Opportunities (NOFOs) worth up to US$6 million in projects addressing human rights violations in North Korea on March 20. The NOFOs seek both short term – three to 12-month duration – and long term – 18 to 42-month duration – projects to produce or transmit content to North Korean audiences about basic human rights and fundamental freedoms.
That ought to set off alarm bells. To be sure, calling out Pyongyang’s abysmal human rights record is indeed appropriate, and human rights activists are likely overjoyed at the prospect.
However, there are good reasons to not go down this path at this time.
North Korea has always been extremely sensitive about human rights and issuing the NOFOs could lead Pyongyang to sever communications with Washington in a show of its frustration.
That would mean no more negotiations concerning the North’s denuclearization – or even talks to establish détente with it as the West did with first Russia and then China when those two countries became nuclear powers.
Pressing human rights at this time could increase the likelihood of Pyongyang returning to provocations – for example, it would jeopardize the continuation of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s self-imposed moratorium on missile launches and nuclear detonations.
Perhaps Kim anticipated US President Donald Trump’s hard line, based on reports sent to him from pre-summit working group members. That could explain recent work at the Sohae launch facility and the Sanumdong missile assembly factory – a “Plan B.”
But there are other ways for the North to express its displeasure. As if the political landscape for dealing with the Kim regime is not complicated enough, other recent events are further muddying the waters.
On March 21, the US Department of the Treasury sanctioned two Chinese vessels for illegal transfers at sea of goods intended for North Korea. When North Korean representatives pulled out of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office in Kaesong, established only last September, that move was initially thought to have been in reaction to those sanctions.
That, however, was not likely the cause.
Confusion arose when Trump announced the next day via Twitter that he was rescinding sanctions because he felt they were not necessary. Only later was it made clear that Trump was referring to upcoming sanctions that were scheduled, but which had not yet gone into effect. The sanctioning on the Chinese vessels remains in place.
It is almost certain that Pyongyang decamping from Kaesong was not related to either set of sanctions for several reasons.
First, no response from the North is necessary for the United States sanctioning of Chinese vessels. Second, leaving the liaison office would have been a counter-productive rejoinder to Trump having canceled sanctions that were only pending.
Third, the reaction is too muted for it to be in reaction to the US Department of State bringing human rights to the fore. Kim’s more likely intent is to pressure the Seoul-Washington alliance.
Who is behind this policy?
Activists the world over had urged Trump to raise human rights at the Hanoi summit, but the State Department NOFOs for human rights projects goes further – taking action and not merely talking.
It remains unclear whether the Trump administration realizes that thrusting human rights back into the spotlight now will adversely affect discussions about nuclear disarmament in North Korea. It does seem that Trump is interested in continuing discussions with Kim.
On the other hand, it is entirely possible that terminating discussions is what US National Security Advisor John Bolton intends. Such a move would be tantamount to acknowledging that North Korean nuclear disarmament as defined by the United States is not achievable – and thus negotiations are no longer warranted.
Bolton, who seems to have the president’s ear, has never favored negotiating with the Kim regime, and has long preferred regime change. After all, it was he who persuaded Trump to “go big” at the Kim-Trump Hanoi summit with a deal many experts recognized would be rejected.
However, the human rights NOFOs may have been the Trump administration’s “Plan B” if the Hanoi summit failed. Although the NOFOs were issued on March 20, they were not developed overnight, and it is reasonable to conclude they had been under consideration before the February 27-28 summit.
Is this a negotiating strategy – something that can be canceled should Kim return to the bargaining table? Or it is a ramping up of pressure?
For now, it is unknown if one hand of the US government is operating independently from the other or if the likely consequences of pressing North Korean human rights violations at this time are deliberately sought.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is now in a difficult position. As a former civil and human rights attorney, he is hardly in a position to complain now that the issue is actively being pursued. Unfortunately, the timing could not be worse for Seoul.
Already, the North is trying to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. Deserting their southern interlocutors in Kaesong is only one more effort toward that end. Moreover, Moon is losing face over the diminishing effect of his mediation labors between Pyongyang and Washington and the stagnating of his peace-making efforts for the Korean Peninsula.
Worse, should Kim react badly to having the human rights issue brought to bear, all of Seoul’s hoped-for economic and social engagement projects with Pyongyang may never get off the ground.
Moon will struggle to regain momentum – if that is even possible – since Washington’s hardline Boltonites have for the moment won. That is not good for anyone.