U.S. policy toward North Korea should focus more on human rights, the former top American diplomat working on such matters said Tuesday, even as Pyongyang tries to prevent outside criticism from reaching its people.
“North Korea is one of the most isolated places on the face of the Earth. It is illegal to listen to foreign radio. It is illegal to watch foreign television. It is illegal to listen to anything but official government-sponsored media,” said former Ambassador Robert R. King, who served as U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights under President Obama.
The human rights special envoy post has remained vacant since early 2017, when Mr. King stepped down. Former President Donald Trump, who pushed top-down diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, never nominated a replacement. The Biden administration has said it intends to, but has given no timeline.
Speaking during “The Washington Brief,” a virtual event series hosted by The Washington Times Foundation, Mr. King stressed the critical importance of human rights issues to the overall approach to North Korea on the divided and heavily armed Korean Peninsula.
With the Kim regime accused of holding as many as 150,000 political prisoners in work and reeducation camps, a focus on rights could have a game-changing impact, Mr. King said. The more people inside North Korea know of their government’s behavior — and of the disapproval other governments have toward it — the more pressure on Mr. Kim’s regime.
“Knowing what’s happening in other parts of the world is important to encourage the North Korean government to move in a more positive direction on human rights,” he said, even though the “greatest concern” remains Pyongyang‘s nuclear weapons and missile programs.
“I think it’s important that North Korea recognize that to be fully accepted internationally, it has human rights obligations that it needs to follow and observe,” he said.
His remarks come at a moment when the Biden administration is exploring ways to kick-start any kind of diplomacy with North Korea. Mr. Biden has named Ambassador Sung Kim as special envoy for North Korea and Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported Tuesday that Mr. Kim will huddle next week with his Japanese and South Korea counterparts in Tokyo next week to discuss collective North Korea policy.
Others who appeared alongside Mr. King for the “The Washington Brief” series on Tuesday said prospects for new talks with Pyongyang remain dim, but generally agreed with Mr. King’s call that U.S. policy should be placing more emphasis on human rights issues.
“I think this is one of the tools, one of the issues, that I think we could see some progress on and we do need to see progress on,” said Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, a former CIA official and longtime U.S. diplomatic adviser. “This is the right thing to do. If North Korea wants to come back into the family of nations, if they want normal relations with the United States, they need to show some progress on issues like human rights, not only nuclear issues,” he said.
But Alexandre Mansourov, professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, said it was unlikely either North Koreans or the Biden administration will be back at the negotiating table anytime soon.
“The Biden administration, after the Afghanistan debacle, I don’t think can afford any new robust aggressive foreign policy initiative and that’s what the resumption of all out talks with North Korea on nuclear or whatever other issues will have to be,” Mr. Mansourov said.
He also asserted that the Biden administration has undercut its credibility on human rights by flirting with the possibility of recognizing the new Taliban government in Afghanistan.
“We just left a country in the hands of a terrorist group which we fought for 20 years, a group which likes to stone people with whom they disagree, especially of a different gender,” Mr. Mansourov said. “So, we’re going to tell the North Koreans, ‘Now you have to come into compliance with international human rights norms because otherwise we’re not going to normalize relations with you?’”
Mr. King repeatedly emphasized the need to push outside streams of information into the country to provide an alternative to the ruling regime’s propaganda, a job made harder by Pyongyang‘s strict controls on internet use and international phone connections.
“But there is an effort underway,” Mr. King said, noting efforts to transmit radio broadcasts into the North from South Korea and from China. “Interestingly enough, Chinese radio is far freer than North Korean radio, which is somewhat of an indictment of the situation in North Korea,” he said.