South Korea’s government is putting Pyongyang’s egregious human rights record on the back burner to keep alive its diplomatic outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and conservative human rights advocates say President Trump is undercutting his own “maximum pressure” campaign on the North’s nuclear programs by following Seoul’s lead.
Since Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim held their historic Singapore summit in June, the issue of North Korean human rights abuses — including what rights advocates say are the regime’s forced labor camps and its vast network of political prisons — has “slipped off the negotiating table,” said Olivia Enos, an Asia policy analyst with The Heritage Foundation.
As a result, North Korea has “set the terms for negotiations” with Washington, Ms. Enos said Monday at a Heritage briefing with regional analysts.
The analysts argued that talks to end Mr. Kim’s nuclear programs must also address his regime’s human rights abuses because financing for the military programs depends on those abuses.
The regime’s wealth relies on free labor from more than 100,000 people in detention camps and as much as $250 million seized annually from tens of thousands of North Korean “guest workers” whom Pyongyang has sent to a dozen or so nations around the world, most notably in neighboring Russia and China.
Critics of the North’s rights record also cite reports that the regime has a record of testing chemical and biological weapons on political prisoners and their families, including women and children.
“Human rights violations and North Korea’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction are two pillars that undergird the existing regime,” Jung H. Pak, a former U.S. intelligence official and senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, said at the Heritage event. “These two pillars are mutually reinforcing.”
The catch, said Greg Scarlatoiu, who heads the U.S.-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, is that South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who is leading the charge in diplomacy with the Kim regime, has made a strategic calculation that the human rights issue is too sensitive to address this early in the talks.
Mr. Scarlatoiu said he did not want to “bash or criticize President Moon,” but the South Korean president is clearly pushing to “make progress as quickly as possible and, in this process, it seems that human rights has been left behind.”
South Korean skepticism
The critique mirrors one made by many South Korean conservatives deeply skeptical of Mr. Moon’s rapid outreach to the North after decades of hostility and threats.
Amanda Mortwedt Oh, an attorney for the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, recently published an open letter to Mr. Moon in the conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper, castigating the South Korean president for abandoning the principles he once pursued as a human rights lawyer.
“How can you reconcile the ideals of universal human rights and dignity for everyone with the current priorities of your government, which has stated that human rights should take a back seat in diplomacy with North Korea?” she wrote. “This approach has been unsuccessful for decades, but my greater fear is that this will normalize atrocities and ignore victims who need our help.”
Mr. Scarlatoiu said the Moon government is also actively undercutting North Korean defector organizations inside South Korea in a bid to avoid upsetting Mr. Kim.
North Korean defectors, including some 31,000 living in South Korea, have provided critical eyewitness accounts of the regime’s abuses. They say in interviews in recent months that their activities have come under increasing official scrutiny since Mr. Moon took over the presidency in May 2017.
“I wouldn’t go as far as to say that this is a highly targeted policy of suppression, but certainly this is part of an effort to appease Kim Jong-un and the Kim regime,” said Mr. Scarlatoiu, who lamented that the Moon government has slashed budgets of key defector organizations.
“We speak with a lot of human rights activists, especially in South Korea, and they are, indeed, expressing very serious concerns,” Mr. Scarlatoiu said. “Their funding has been drastically reduced.”
South Korean lawmakers agreed to dramatic cuts in funding for defector organizations this year. Just weeks after the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, the Moon government quietly ended funding for an office for the North Korean Human Rights Foundation. The organization was created under South Korean law two years ago but had not become fully operational.
What’s worse, Mr. Scarlatoiu said, is an apparent crackdown by South Korean law enforcement on information sent clandestinely into North Korea by defector and activist groups based in the South.
“Activists in South Korea, many of them who are North Korean escapees, are telling us that, regrettably, South Korean law enforcement censors the content they send into North Korea,” he said, pointing specifically to a little-known campaign in which activists smuggle USB computer data drives from South to North.
The data drives, packed with films and other information about the outside world, are slipped inside plastic bottles full of rice that are then floated out to sea off the South Korean coastline. Sea currents carry the bottles to North Korean beaches, where the data drives can be retrieved and spread through the North’s underground information economy.
“There have been instances verified by our friends, where South Korean cops showed up, asked to see the USBs and check the content,” said Mr. Scarlatoiu, who added that the South Korean police have determined that “content critical of Kim Jong-un [is] not OK” and confiscate any data drives deemed unacceptable.
Pressure on Trump
U.S. conservatives are being urged to take a more aggressive stand on North Korean human rights abuses ahead of a second Trump-Kim summit, which sources say is likely early next year. They cite President Reagan’s willingness to highlight human rights abuses to gain an edge in negotiations with the Soviet Union during the 1980s.
“Human rights is a national security issue,” said David Maxwell, a retired Army Special Forces colonel and a North Korea analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “You can’t have maximum pressure if you don’t include human rights.”
Dan Aum, director of the National Bureau for Asian Research’s Washington, D.C. office, argued that a good first step for the Trump administration would be “nominating and confirming a special envoy for human rights on North Korea at the State Department, a position that has been vacant for the past two years now.”
Mr. Scarlatoiu added that the Trump administration could use America’s power as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to place the issue on the council’s official agenda as a topic for debate.
Others were less optimistic.
Ms. Pak of the Brookings Institution said she was discouraged that Mr. Trump’s speech last month before the U.N. General Assembly was a stark departure from his remarks there a year earlier.
In 2017, Mr. Trump’s U.N. speech hammered North Korea over its nuclear provocations and human rights abuses, including the fatal mistreatment of detained University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier. Last month, Mr. Trump made no mention of the North’s human rights record, Ms. Pak said.
Instead, the president lauded his administration’s withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council and from the U.N.-backed International Criminal Court, said Ms. Pak, “as if to foot-stomp the fact that we are not going to raise the human rights issue with Kim Jong-un or North Korea anymore.”