During US President Donald Trump’s historic June 30 visit to North Korean soil it was announced by the White House that denuclearization talks would begin again within weeks. While it is hoped that Trump’s continued outreach to Kim Jong Un and investment in the relationship will provide needed momentum in the talks, addressing the dire human-rights situation in North Korea needs to be part of the discussions and must not fall by the wayside.
Put simply, the plight of North Korean political prisoners and their families must be part of the overall equation in the Trump administration’s discussions with the regime.
Some argue human rights do not amount to a serious concern amid the consequential issues involving North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the threat it poses to the region and the broader world community. Yet the upcoming diplomacy provides an opportunity to address some of the world’s most egregious human-rights abuses that Pyongyang commits on a daily basis.
North Korea is well known for its extensive system of gulags where political prisoners are starved, tortured, raped and subjected to forced labor and executions. Political prisoners are often murdered by poison gas while being used as guinea pigs for testing the regime’s chemical and biological weapons programs, a sadistic crime the civilized world expected to end with the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.
The cruelty extends beyond the political prisoners themselves, with the regime often targeting members of the prisoners’ extended families as well, subjecting them to imprisonment and torture.
The approaching talks are an opportunity to make headway in curtailing these egregious abuses. Washington can use its leverage in any number of areas to insist on changes to North Korea’s brutal treatment of its people and foreign captives.
While Kim has long made it known of his desire for sanctions relief, investment, a declaration of the Korean War’s end and official diplomatic recognition by the US, the Trump administration can use its clout in these areas as bargaining chips for both specified denuclearization steps and human-rights reforms.
There is precedent for this. History provides a useful lesson as to how human-rights advocacy can be a part of these highly anticipated meetings.
As secretary of state for then-US president Ronald Reagan, George Shultz was involved in numerous arms-control negotiations with the Soviets. During these talks, it was not uncommon for Shultz to demand targeted human-rights concessions from Moscow as part of the arms-control negotiations.
At times, Shultz’ demands yielded human-rights concessions by the Soviets, saving lives.
Washington ought to take a page from Shultz’ playbook and do the same with Pyongyang.
The US negotiating team should advocate for the release of a specific number of political prisoners and their families. The Americans also need to demand the release of all surviving Japanese citizens and other foreign nationals Pyongyang has abducted in past decades.
Beyond this, Trump’s negotiating team should call for the immediate halt of the Kim regime’s ongoing expansion of its gulag system.
While the upcoming negotiations bring hope for a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis, the Trump administration must not abandon its obligations to improve the human condition in North Korea. The prolonged suffering of North Korean political prisoners and others needs to be addressed while Washington enjoys its position of considerable leverage in the talks.