December 12, 2018

North Koreans Also Have Human Rights

For almost three decades, U.S. administrations have tiptoed around the egregious human rights violations perpetrated by the Kim regimes in North Korea. But U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo already has changed the equation, by securing the release of three American detainees — a reminder that the United States still has the clout to move the needle on human rights.

Now the world has witnessed the historic summit on denuclearization, between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore. Clearly, human rights did not take center stage. As the president returns home, we urge him to put the release of Japanese, other foreign and South Korean abductees, the reunion of separated Korean families, and the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean political prison camps, as part of the bill the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea must pay to become a normal and responsible member of the international community.

Three generations of the Kim family regime have continued to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles at the expense of the human security of North Koreans, and to egregiously violate the human rights of its citizens. To tackle North Korean threats, the Trump administration has creatively applied fundamental elements of national power — including military (deploying assets off the Korean peninsula) and economic power (international sanctions).

 Human rights cannot be treated as a sidebar issue.

Kim Jong Un insists on security guarantees, but history teaches that liberal democracies shouldn’t try to guarantee the survival of a regime that runs political prison camps and commits crimes against humanity. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his advisers represent a generation of progressive intellectuals who helped democratize their nation. Their lasting legacy ultimately will be defined by their stance on North Korean human rights. Will they appease tyranny and lead South Korea down the path of catastrophic compromise? Or will they become heroes who brought freedom and human rights to both Koreas?

Time will tell. But early signs from Seoul are not encouraging. The recent ban on leaflet balloon launches and loudspeaker broadcasting into North Korea is one reason for concern. North Korean escapees in South Korea give voice to silenced millions. At this critical crossroad, the South Korean administration must protect these heroes and ensure their voices are heard, not muzzled. Now, in the aura of the summit, the spotlight shifts to U.S. summit diplomacy. Will it become a historic achievement for Trump or just a déjà vu North Korean scam?

To achieve real peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia — a fundamental U.S. security interest — the nature of the Kim regime and its horrific human rights abuses must remain in focus.

Human rights cannot be treated as a sidebar issue, possibly sacrificed for a wink and a nod and a photo-op. Human rights cannot be postponed until an ever-elusive future scenario in which the Kim regime miraculously agrees to protect the rights of its citizens. Despots do not give away human rights out of the goodness of their hearts. Human rights always are achieved and protected through struggle. Can the U.S. remove the nuclear threat and guarantee human rights simultaneously?

President Trump, please take note: America already did it and with a much more dangerous foe. During the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan and then-Secretary of State George Shultz used the issue of freedom for Soviet Jewry as the litmus test for Soviet intentions on nuclear disarmament. Eventually, human rights prevailed and the communist system dissolved without a shot being fired.

The U.S. should counter Kim’s cycle of “charm offensives” not through appeasement but through verifiable changes. It is important to witness the blowing up of one nuclear test site. Of equal importance will be the dismantling of Kim’s gulag. When that occurs — and only then — can the world be assured that the two estranged Koreas are on the path to a peaceful reunification and a hopeful future for all.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean and director of the Global Social Action Agenda of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Greg Scarlatoiu is executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), on whose board Cooper serves.