After the Obama administration’s groundbreaking nuclear deal with Iran, there have been calls to replicate that pact with North Korea, a rogue state that already has nuclear-weapons capability.
From Washington to Beijing, analysts and policymakers have been talking about the agreement as a possible “blueprint” for negotiations with Pyongyang.
But Kim Jong Un’s regime has made it clear that it expects to be accepted as a nuclear power — saying this month it is “not interested” in an Iran-style deal. The Obama administration is instead focusing on human rights to further isolate North Korea, encouraged by the outbursts this approach has elicited from Kim’s stubbornly recalcitrant regime — apparently because the accusations cast aspersions at the leader and his legitimacy.
“There is a growing assumption that the North Koreans are not going to surrender their nukes,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert based in Seoul, said after recent meetings with officials in Washington. Human rights are Washington’s “next political infatuation,” he said.
This is likely to increase as a U.N. committee reports back in October on a resolution condemning North Korea’s human rights violations and seeking to refer its leaders to the International Criminal Court. It comes after a U.N. Commission of Inquiry released a landmark report last year, detailing abuses including torture and imprisonment in labor camps for political crimes, forced abortions and infanticide.
Although such a resolution would be certain to be vetoed in the U.N. Security Council by China and probably Russia, American officials say that simply keeping the issue alive and continuing the drumbeat of criticism against the regime has more of an impact than forcing the resolution to a vote.
“I think this focus on human rights is beginning to get their attention,” a senior State Department official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules imposed by the department. “We’ve been able to push on [the Commission of Inquiry report], and we are continuing to keep these efforts going.”
For more than two decades, Washington has been trying to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program — a goal quite different from that of the Iran deal, which would only limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities — with little success.
Since North Korea declared in April 2009 that it would no longer participate in six-party nuclear talks, it has conducted two more nuclear tests, taking the total to three. Some analysts are surprised that two years have passed without a fourth test, and some fear more fireworks from North Korea in October, when it will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party.
American and South Korean officials, have been trying unsuccessfully to revive the talks and have instead been holding their own meetings.
However, human rights is one issue on which North Korea has been engaging energetically.
Pyongyang this month denounced the United States for “escalating” its anti-North Korea campaign after Sung Kim, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy said at a public forum that “pressure is a very critical part of our approach to dealing with North Korea.”
The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency reported afterward that pressure “being persistently increased” would simply “harden” North Korea’s “will to take tough counter-action against” the United States.
North Korean representatives have been notably responsive at the United Nations to criticism of the country’s human rights record and of the leadership in particular, staging a number of protests at forums in New York.
At a human rights panel in April hosted by Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, North Korean diplomats mounted a noisy demonstration that led to their microphones being cut off. They were escorted from the hall by security officers.
The North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, Jang Il Hun, attended a discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations devoted to his country’s human rights situation.
North Korean diplomats in Geneva have appeared before the U.N.’s Human Rights Council and admitted there is room for improvement — although their concessions fell well short of what human rights groups allege — and other diplomats have indirectly acknowledged the existence of labor camps.
Such engagement is remarkable, because North Korea had previously responded to charges about its human rights record with silence.
“This is an indication that they’re feeling some pressure and that they’re trying to deal with it. They’ve become much more engaged in the process,” the State Department official said.
The North’s reaction is due in no small part to U.N. commission charges that go all the way to the top of Pyongyang’s leadership. Michael Kirby, an Australian judge who led the commission of inquiry, even wrote a letter directly to Kim.
“That’s what caused them some real concern. For the North Koreans, legitimacy is a big deal. It’s a question about the leader and his dignity,” Kirby said.
Pyongyang’s reactions to the human rights push have been similar to its visceral reaction to American financial sanctions in 2005, said William Newcomb, a former Treasury official who served on a special U.N. panel of experts on sanctions against North Korea.
By sanctioning Banco Delta Asia, a small bank based in Macau that handled North Korean money, the United States effectively cut off North Korea’s access to the international financial system. That brought Pyongyang back to the nuclear negotiating table.
“I perceive their response as being similar to how they reacted once they realized what had been done to them via BDA — and that took a while to sink in,” Newcomb said. “Even then, they really didn’t understand how BDA could be leveraged to have lasting negative consequences on their access to the international finance system.
“Exposing their horrible human rights record similarly puts them on the defensive, and, unlike with nukes, they have no counterargument to justify their actions that anyone could buy,” he said.
North Korea has insisted that it needs a nuclear capacity to defend itself against “hostile forces” — namely the United States, which has strong military alliances with South Korea and Japan.