Approaches to the Formulation of a Human Rights Agenda in the US-DPRK Dialogue

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Alexandre Mansourov, "Approaches to the Formulation of a Human Rights Agenda in the US-DPRK Dialogue", DPRK, January 01, 1994,

Approaches to the Formulation of a Human Rights Agenda in the
US-DPRK Dialogue

by Alexandre Mansourov


A satisfactory resolution of the nuclear question on the Korean
peninsula will create further momentum for progress in the
security and political dialogue between the DPRK and the USA. At
this time, human rights is likely to come to the forefront of
bilateral discussions. Pyongyang and Washington stand at opposite
positions. The DPRK argues that it is none of the United States’
business how an independent and sovereign DPRK is run. The
United States demands that Pyongyang almost change its political
system in order to be able “to join the international family of
nations” and to comply with Washington’s strict code of human
rights. This ideological confrontation, involving the human
rights issue, is not new nor is it surprising. It is part of the
legacy of the Cold War in the East-West in general and intra-
Korean rivalry in particular. But both sides will have to tackle
this issue seriously.

What could be the place of the humanitarian issues in the general
framework of the US-DPRK bilateral dialogue? Should the United
States take the lead, as it did in the nuclear talks, and also
advocate the humanitarian concerns of the ROK, Japan, Russia,
and, possibly, PRC in its talks with North Korea ? Or should the
humanitarian dialogue be compartmentalized and specific
humanitarian concerns be left for each country to worry about?
Or should some kind of multilateral forum be established in which
these issues would be discussed and resolved?

What could be the attainable goals of the United States human
rights policy toward the DPRK? What policy instruments should the
United States use to get there? What could be the unintended
consequences of the vigorous pursuit of the human rights’ agenda
vis-a-vis North Korea? What is a likely Pyongyang’s response to
the US humanitarian offensive? Is there a middleground where
Pyongyang and Washington could find some compromise solutions
regarding the human rights issues.

These are some of the questions that I will try to answer drawing
from the long humanitarian dialogue between East and West;
lessons from the US-PRC discussions of human rights; lessons from
the US push for human rights in Latin America, including in Cuba
and Haiti; and the peculiarities and sensitivities of the
situation on the Korean peninsula.

Neither American nor North Korean negotiators should try to
reinvent the wheel in their approaches to human rights in their
bilateral agenda. Instead, both sides should be driven by the
widely-recognized principles of international human rights law
and practice of international diplomacy thereof.

To begin with, both sides could start by informally recognizing
the value of the 1975 Helsinki accords between the communist
countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the advanced
capitalist democracies of the Western Europe and North America.
In particular, they could lay a foundation for their discussions
on the following political principles established in Helsinki as
the common ground for the East-West humanitarian talks:

First, the humanitarian basket (“the third basket”) is a
legitimate topic in the DPRK-US relations, which no longer shall
be seen as interference in domestic affairs nor violation of
national sovereignty by either side. Similarly, this principle
can be applied to the South-North humanitarian talks, in which
case both governments should stop accusing each other of
subversive activities and anti- regime propaganda. The ROK
government would have to reconsider its repressive policy toward
the so-called “pro-North sympathizers”.

Second, the US could extend the olive branch of detente to the
DPRK in exchange for the “socialism with human face”. That is,
the Pyongyang regime would promote a more open economy and some
political liberalization. If Pyongyang strongly desires to sign a
Peace Treaty with the United States, the United States should
ensure not only the realization of the North-South
denuclearization pledge, the mutual recognition of present
political realities on the peninsula, and the North’s commitment
to conventional disarmament in the long term be part of the
Treaty; but also, a North Korean commitment to democracy,
universal human values, and the UN-recognized human rights as
part of the new political arrangements.

First as the 1975 Helsinki Act helped shape security and
political discourse between East and West and contributed to
political liberalization in Eastern Europe in the mid-late 1980s,
so the proposed Peace Treaty with the DPRK should establish the
legal framework for the military detente and political
cooperation on the peninsula as a whole; and create favorable
conditions for the improvement of human rights situation and
eventual political liberalization in the North.

Third, North Korea should be provided with a plausible rationale
why they have to improve their human rights record. Their reason
lies not in the fact that the United States wants them to do so.
Rather, it denies from the fact that their practices do not fit
the norms and rules established and honored by the international
community of nations. In other words, the DPRK should be brought
into the international discussions over the “universal human

The Helsinki accords did a good job in bridging the ideological
divide over the notion of “universality” of human values.
However, in early 1990s a new challenge was launched on cultural
grounds from different quarters of the human rights debate.
Although the DPRK stayed on the sidelines of this international
debate, its position has still evolved. Pyongyang advocates a
parochial view of human values, but the rationale is shifting
from an orthodox communist justification of its national position
to the ethno-cultural Asia-oriented position. Thus, human rights
is a tricky question for Washington to raise in Pyongyang because
of the ambiguities found in the Chinese, Japanese, and South
Korea positions. Thus, it is imperative that the United States
provides a sound philosophical basis for its claims on human
rights vis-a-vis the DPRK.

Fourth, as the experience of the Helsinki process showed,
progress toward attainment of these “universal values” is
acceptable if gradual, but must be steady. There is no quick fix
for problems arising from the fundamental disagreements over the
nature of political system, political regime, politics, etc.
Mutual expectations in this regard should be low. However, in
the long run, when both sides are directly exposed to each
others’ views and practices for some time, learning and mutual
adjustment will take place, at least at the elite level, and
eventually produce some desirable outcomes on the human rights
front as well.

Fifth, the principle of the legitimacy of international
monitoring of the human rights situation in the DPRK should be
established. In return, the United States should leave the whole
domain of monitoring to Non-Governmental Organizations and
international news media, as it was done after Helsinki. The
United States can not be a global policeman of human rights that
sends its inspectors to interview ordinary North Koreans to find
out what they think of their government. Besides, this will
reduce North Korean suspicions that the United States government
is spying on or undermining the North Korean regime. On the North
Korean side, the DPRK has already accepted international
inspections of its nuclear facilities, so it should not be
perceived as an intolerable threat to its national security to
allow international human rights’ watchdog groups to visit the
country and do their field research. Conversely, it should be in
the interest of the North Korean government to provide
“administrative guidance” to such monitoring groups so that
later, it can use them to express its own views on the human
rights situation in the DPRK.

In addition, several important lessons may be drawn from the US-
PRC talks on human rights. In fact, for some time the North
Korean government has been watching closely the on-going
humanitarian negotiations between Washington and Beijing in
attempt to get prepared for future discussions of its own record
with Washington. Given such attention, the Clinton Administration
should lay out its vision of the place and role of the human
rights issues in bilateral relations, as well as its long-term
and short-term humanitarian goals vis-a-vis the North early in
the process of negotiating a Peace Treaty and new relationship
with Pyongyang.

In general, it will be unwise for Washington to make the
“humanitarian basket” the cornerstone of a new relationship.
This policy would be short-sighted and hard to sell at home, in
Pyongyang, and in East Asia as a whole. It is an important aspect
of the new relationship, but not the central one. North Korean
promotion of and adherence to human rights should be desired and
encouraged, but it should not become a deal-breaker nor an
impediment to the conclusion of the Peace Treaty with the North.

At the bilateral talks, therefore, the United States should not
try to represent the humanitarian concerns of other countries in
the region and to negotiate on their behalf. For example, the
issues of the intra-Korean humanitarian exchanges (establishment
of the postal, TV and radio connections, air and railroad travel
links, etc.), or the predicament of the abducted Japanese women,
or the plight of the North Korean loggers in Russia, or the
potential flood of refugees into China and Japan from the DPRK
are much too politically and culturally loaded and complex to be
dealt with in the US-DPRK talks. Rather, these issues should be
left for discussions between the primary parties. But Washington
can facilitate speedy and mutually beneficial solutions between
the North and the third parties.

The long-term goal of the US human rights policy should be to
induce political liberalization in the North. A politically
liberal and economically more open North Korea should be more
acceptable to the United States. Concurrently, Washington should
be even-handed and inform Pyongyang that it continues to favor
further democratization in the South as well. Such implicit
balancing is likely to boost the perception of fairness in
Pyongyang. Also, if unification should occur, then the prior
political liberalization of the North may contribute
significantly to smoother transition and success of
democratization across all the Korean peninsula in a unified
Korea. Nobody will benefit from the destruction of democracy and
resurrection of totalitarianism or authoritarianism in any form
in a unified Korea.

The short-term goal may be to seek more humanitarian exchanges
with the DPRK, to promote the cause of the separated families,
and to seek transparency of laws and the law-enforcement
practices related to human rights there.

The first major and immediate difficulty that Washington will
face is that there are no high-profile victims of human rights
abuses to save or to protect in the DPRK, as was the case with
the Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov or the Jewish minority in
the former USSR or the leaders of the Tian’anmen uprising in
Beijing in 1989. Active anti-regime forces were rooted out in
the North long time ago. Latent political opposition to Kim Jong-
il’s ascendancy to power is formed of the regime insiders who may
be periodically in or out of the inner circle. But it is not
Washington’s business to protect them. In the meantime, the
general public, including the North Korean intelligentsia, seems
to be subdued and content with the current regime.

To get started, Washington may propose that Pyongyang make public
all the laws and voluminous regulations–including the Penal Code
and Civil Code–that govern civil, political and economic
behavior in the DPRK. This request should not be regarded as a
threat to national security in Pyongyang. But it would be a big
step for ordinary North Koreans to read the secret rules that
govern their daily lives. It would not be full-blossom glastnost,
but a positive first step.

Moreover, the US-PRC humanitarian talks show that progress is
usually achieved when discussions move beyond a mere reiteration
of general humanitarian principles and preaching one’s own values
to inquiry about and investigation of concrete cases of alleged
human rights’ violations. It is through the resolution of
concrete humanitarian cases that the spirit of cooperation and
mutual trust are developed and important principles and
precedents are established. At this time, the United States does
not have that many specific cases to pursue. That’s why, at the
onset, the United States should emphasize greater transparency of
national legislation in the North, more humanitarian exchanges
between the North and the West aimed at getting and disseminating
information, and some access for international human rights
watchdog groups to the North (which, as the first order of
business, should address allegations about the alleged existence
of 150,000 political prisoners in the DPRK).

With regard to strategy, it is obvious that North Korea is not
Haiti. Military intervention aimed at stopping alleged human
rights abuses in the DPRK is out of question. Therefore, threats
of the use of force for the sake of human rights are not
credible, and won’t work.

On the other hand, the foremost lesson of human rights diplomacy
is that the linkage between human rights and trade does not pay
off. It was not the Jackson-Vanik amendment that freed Jews in
the former USSR. Gorbachev’s perestroika did. The economic
embargo against Cuba only led to two boatlifts of tens of
thousands of angry and hungry Cuban refugees to the United
States, which ironically resulted in the state of emergency in
Florida, not Havana.

It was not the annual MNF renewal ritual in Washington that
drastically improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people
in China in the 1980-1990s. Rather, Deng Xiao Ping’s economic
reforms and Western investments and trade did. An international
embargo on Bosnia did not stop ethnic cleansing either.

Hence, the bottom-line is to not threaten Pyongyang that no
economic cooperation and aid will be forthcoming unless they
immediately improve their human rights record. This approach did
not work in the past elsewhere. It would fail in North Korea too.

Moreover, the DPRK has an isolated, unbalanced economy devastated
by the cutoff of its main supply lines from Russia and China.
But the DPRK is also a survivor. It has a good chance of getting
back on its feet, even by itself. So threats of withholding
something which they have never had will not make much difference
in the short run to their calculus. It follows that trade and
human rights issues should be pursued on separate tracks in
negotiations with the North. The United States might link
specific demands on human rights such as the non-use of prison
labor to make export-oriented goods, with specific economic
inducements; but generally, the agenda should be kept separate.

In sum, comprehensive economic cooperation, multilateral and
unilateral economic aid packages linked to specific projects of
economic reform in the North, as well as extensive humanitarian
and cultural contacts are likely to make a lot of difference in
the North Koreans’ world view. Simply interacting with the rest
of the world will change their expectations and wants, as well as
in their values. In turn, this should lead them to step up
efforts to improve their human rights record followed by
political liberalization.

In conclusion, the best wheel is already available to the North
Koreans. If the DPRK wants to break out of its diplomatic and
political isolation, it has no choice but to accept international
norms and values. Self-interest will bring the DPRK to adopt an
acceptable human rights discourse and practices, not external
coercion. With all its national peculiarities and sensitivities,
it still cannot be treated as an exception to these general

On the other hand, in order to achieve meaningful results, the
United States should accept limited goals and legitimate means in
its human rights policy vis-a-vis the DPRK. It must refrain from
using the humanitarian issue as a Trojan horse to undermine the
North Korean regime. Otherwise, the human rights issue would
only underlie bilateral relations and detract further from human
rights in the DPRK itself This will do no good to the improvement
of the bilateral relations nor of the human rights situation in
the DPRK.

Alexandre Mansourov is an associate of the Nautilus Institute
who is a former Soviet diplomat based in Pyongyang and graduate
of Kim Il Song University.

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