In dealing with North Korea, concerns about peace and nuclear disarmament have taken precedence over the defense of human rights. However, precedents exist for integrating human rights concerns into policies toward countries where nuclear weapons occupy a central point of discussion. Both Democratic and Republican administrations found effective bilateral and multilateral means of promoting human rights goals with the Soviet Union even though they were negotiating nuclear weapons agreements with its leaders at the same time. Broader discussions about political, economic, energy, human rights and humanitarian concerns have the potential to create a more solid foundation for talks about nuclear issues.
The United States could raise human rights concerns and seek North Korean agreement on specific steps, such as: 1) Accelerated and expanded family reunifications; 2) International monitoring of food distribution to ensure it reaches the intended recipients; 3) Decriminalization of movement within North Korea and across the border, and an end to the persecution of those who return voluntarily or are forced back into North Korea; 4) The release of innocent children and family members of those convicted of political crimes; 5) Access to prisoners by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the World Food Program (WFP) and other international agencies; 6) Reviews of the cases of prisoners of conscience with the ICRC or Amnesty International with a view to their release; and 7) Identification and provision of a full accounting of prisoners of war from the Korean War and abductees missing from South Korea, Japan, and other nations. While these steps do not address the full range of human rights abuses committed by the North Korean regime, we believe they represent human rights issues that can be raised in negotiations with the regime.
U. S. multilateral initiatives and discussions should also give prominence to North Korean human rights issues. North Korea has ratified five international human rights treaties, has recently placed the term “human rights” in its Constitution, and has participated, to a very limited degree, in UN reviews of its human rights record. The U. S. should recognize and build on the obligations that the North Korean government has undertaken in international agreements. It should express strong support for the recommendations on North Korean human rights contained in Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s and Special Rapporteur Vitit Muntarbhorn’s reports and press a broad range of other governments to do likewise
If the proposals of the Secretary-General, General Assembly and Human Rights Council remain unimplemented despite the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and should access continue to be denied to UN human rights bodies, an alternative strategy should be pursued. For example, the UN Security Council, of which the U.S. is a member, could adopt a resolution on the human rights situation in North Korea and also refer the matter of crimes against humanity in North Korea to the International Criminal Court for investigation and prosecution. Further, it could explore the application of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine to the human rights situation in North Korea, since the prison system and other practices can be shown to constitute crimes against humanity.
North Koreans who attempt to move about inside their own country in search of food, medicine and jobs have often been arrested and detained. At the same time, their government refuses to acknowledge the fundamental right of people to leave their country and return to it. For more than two decades, North Koreans have been fleeing their country because of economic deprivation and political persecution. Whether they are forced back to North Korea or return voluntarily, they are subjected to detention, punishment, imprisonment, and sometimes execution.
Because of their reasonable fear of persecution upon return to North Korea, all of the people who flee North Korea may well qualify as refugees sur place and warrant the protections that international law requires for refugees. International law, particularly the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, strictly and specifically prohibits forced repatriation of a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that they would be in danger of being subjected to torture or persecution.
China repatriates North Koreans without affording them any access to a screening process whereby their claims for refugee status could be assessed. Repatriation of North Koreans not only leads to their imprisonment and other abuses, it also encourages trafficking; forcing North Korean women who fear repatriation into forced marriages, prostitution, and physical and psychological abuse.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has often requested to have access to North Koreans in order to determine their status, but China has restricted UNHCR’s access and North Koreans’ access to UNHCR’s offices in Beijing. The United States should lend its full support to UNHCR’s appeals and mobilize other governments to do likewise in order to make sure that the provisions of the 1951 Refugee Convention are upheld and the work of this important UN agency enhanced. The United States should also raise with China the need to respect the rights of North Korean women who stay in China to raise their families, and afford these residents legal status for themselves and their children.
There is no reason that China must bear the burden of resettling all North Korean refugees. The United States should work with South Korea and countries around the world to establish multilateral First Asylum arrangements, as was done for the Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s. Arrangements should be negotiated with countries in the region to provide temporary asylum to these refugees with the assurance that they will be permanently resettled elsewhere.
South Korea should be supported in its efforts to grant asylum to North Korean refugees who reach its embassies and consulates abroad since its Constitution protects the rights of North Koreans fleeing abroad. Given the special connections between Mongolia and the Koreas, the government of Mongolia should be encouraged to play a more active role in providing asylum and facilitating resettlement to a third country.
The United States should also initiate the development of an international plan with UNHCR for a potential refugee crisis in the event of political destabilization in North Korea.
The NKHRA clarified the eligibility of North Koreans for asylum in the United States even if they also qualify for South Korean citizenship; directed the State Department to facilitate the submission of applications by North Koreans seeking protection as refugees; and authorized up to $20 million per year for humanitarian assistance to North Koreans outside of North Korea.
The administration should designate a specific office with the responsibility for implementing the NKHRA refugee resettlement mandate.
Specific practical recommendations for the United States Department of State include the following:
Famine continues to threaten North Korea and providing food to the starving remains essential. In 2008, Pyongyang temporarily agreed to allow greater access to relief workers, to let them conduct inspections with 24-hour notification and to permit Korean-speaking staff members. The U.S. should seek to have these arrangements re-instated as quickly as possible and work with the WFP to press for access to additional counties and an improved quality of monitoring, including the introduction of modern inventory-management systems that can reduce diversion.
The WFP and humanitarian relief organizations should also be encouraged to attempt to supply food aid to the prisons on an urgent basis, in order to alleviate the problem of starvation among prisoners and high levels of deaths in detention from the combination of forced labor and below-subsistence-level food rations.
Because the North Korean people are so restricted in the information they receive about their own country and the world outside, the United States should continue to expand radio broadcasting into North Korea and encourage other efforts that provide information directly to the North Korean people in accordance with the NKHRA. The United States should also make known to the North Korean people that their welfare is of great concern to the American people and that the U.S. and other nations are regularly restricted by the North Korean government from providing food aid and other supplies to them.
The administration should obtain additional funding from Congress to permit Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and defector organizations, to broadcast radio programs into North Korea, providing information on world news, developments in both North and South Korea, and material that shows the freedoms enjoyed by the people of South Korea and the rest of the world. The United States government should use its good relations with neighboring countries to persuade them to provide locations and assistance for transmission facilities for medium-wave broadcasting in addition to the current short-wave broadcasting.
No one knows better how to bring about reform in North Korea than the defectors from North Korea. Until the election of President Lee Myung Bak, many of them were restricted from sharing their information and insights. Now that they are free to speak out, they should be considered an excellent resource for learning more about how the military, party, security services and government work, current human rights conditions in North Korea, including in prisons, and how to bring about reform.
The United States should help develop an educated cadre of experts and potential leaders who might later return to North Korea. It should create a scholarship program for study in the United States for North Koreans who have departed, and also expand it to include North Koreans who may be permitted to travel abroad for schooling. North Korea has recently allowed some students to study in China, India, and Australia. The U.S. Congress should establish a program that encourages North Korean students to attend schools in the United States. A similar program during the period of Apartheid in South Africa produced a generation of leaders who were prepared to take over the reins of leadership when the opportunity arose. The administration should further encourage other Western nations to invite North Koreans to their countries, which at times might be more politically feasible than bringing them to the U. S. In large part, the United States should be developing multiple channels of exchange and contact with the North Korean people.
North Korea’s admitted government-sponsored abduction of citizens of other nations, and its refusal to allow them to decide their own choice of residence is a clear violation of North Korea’s international legal obligations. In addition, many South Korean families have been separated since the Korean War, and more recently famine, extreme poverty, and political persecution in the North have led to the flight of North Koreans who are then separated from their families. Although North Korea has allowed brief visits under closely-supervised family reunions, only 1,600 of the 125,000 South Korean applicants have been able to participate. Some ten million await information about missing family members. The ICRC should be brought in to use its expert tracing facilities to learn the whereabouts of the missing.
In order to finance its military programs, security services and loyal elite, the North Korean regime has systematically engaged in international criminal activity, including drug trafficking, counterfeiting of goods and currency, and banking and insurance fraud. Although a small office exists in the State Department to coordinate the Proliferation Security Initiative, only a few cases have been pursued rigorously. The pursuit of cases against North Korea is sometimes overcome by other priorities (e.g., the maintenance of a favorable negotiating atmosphere), but the administration should recognize the nexus between these international illicit activities and North Korea’s abuse of human rights at home and pursue enforcement operations rigorously.
The impending change of leadership when Kim Jong-il dies presents both a challenge and an opportunity for regional peace and security. The implications for the human rights of North Korea’s people are profound. Although new leadership may not reverse Kim Jong-il’s policies overnight, it may prove more receptive to addressing some human rights concerns as a means of signaling to the rest of the world that its intentions are friendly.
In the event of political change in North Korea, international access to the prison camps will need to be given the highest priority. Prisoners constitute a “vulnerable group” to whom food, medicine and shelter should be provided immediately. An orderly departure program from the camps will need to be implemented and resettlement arranged for those whose treatment or condition precludes re-integration into North Korean society. The International Labor Organization (ILO) will need to be brought in to review standards of work at the camps where reports of forced and slave labor and below-subsistence food rations have been producing large numbers of deaths.
The international community should also prepare a plan for addressing the severe economic needs of the people of North Korea. Under the most optimistic scenario, a package of international economic assistance should be envisioned if new leadership demonstrates a willingness to pursue improvements in North Korea’s human rights practices. In foreign investment, core labor standards, including the prohibition of forced labor, as established in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, must be ensured. At the appropriate time, international aid for “states in transition” should be made available to North Korea to help with the establishment of the rule of law, respect for human rights, political parties, an independent media and the other essential features of a democratic society.
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