North Korea human rights advocates are considering more practical ways to reform the repressive practices of the Kim Jong Un government, as denuclearization talks continue to end the country’s economic and diplomatic isolation.
Rights activists hold out hope that U.S. President Donald Trump will confront Kim at their expected Singapore meeting in June about ongoing atrocities in North Korea, including a network of political prison camps and widespread government sanctioned abuses in the country.
Benedict Rogers, with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a religious freedom oriented organization, urges President Trump to emulate former President Ronald Reagan who once publicly called on the leader of the Soviet Union to tear down the Berlin Wall that separated democratic West Germany and the Communist East.
“Mr. Trump’s message should be, Mr. Kim if you seek peace, come to the gates of the prison camps, open the prison camps, tear down the walls of the prison camps,” said Rogers at a North Korea human rights conference in Seoul on Thursday.
Human rights agenda
It is unclear if human rights will be part of the agenda at the U.S.-North Korea nuclear summit, if it happens. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and high-ranking North Korean official Kim Yong Chol have been meeting this week in New York to overcome the main obstacle to the summit; the gap between the U.S. demand for rapid and complete denuclearization and North Korea’s more phased in approach that would provide early sanctions relief.
Brad Adams, the Asia director at the advocacy group Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Thursday, “Whatever the outcome of nuclear talks, human rights-related sanctions should remain in effect until North Korea changes the way it treats its people.”
The United Nations has passed 13 resolutions addressing human rights abuses in North Korea, most recently in March of this year at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
In 2014 the United Nations General Assembly voted to refer the leadership in Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, after a Commission of Inquiry report documented systematic and ongoing atrocities in North Korea, including restricting all forms of dissent, prohibiting religion, and engaging in the arbitrary arrest of more than 100,000 political opponents or critics, torture and executions of its citizens. The measure stalled in the U.N. Security Council where the North’s allies, China and Russia, are believed to be preventing it from coming to a vote.
Human rights abuses in North Korea were not discussed at the recent inter-Korean summit that focused on improving relations through increased dialogue and cooperation and exchanges.
Activists are preparing for the likelihood that the U.S.-North Korea summit will not substantially address the North’s human rights situation either, and that a nuclear deal would lead to an end to the current U.N. sanctions that ban 90 percent of North Korean trade, and would offer a significant increase in foreign trade and investment.
An opening of the North’s economic system could lead to legal reforms and the easing of travel and communications restrictions, if the Kim government follows the Chinese or Vietnamese models for economic development and foreign investment.
“If North Korea embarks on reform and opens up the economy more aggressively, and if there is an increase in external trade and foreign investment on North Korea, then the voices from the outside world on the North Korean human rights situation will have a bigger impact on the people of North Korea,” said Kim Young Hwan, a longtime North Korea human rights advocate, who is now with an organization called Group For The Future.
To be most effective during the initial stages of economic engagement with North Korea, Kim Young Hwan advises activists to focus on improving civil rights related to the workplace, rather than pressing for democratic reforms the Kim government would view as a direct challenge to its rule.
David Hawk with the U.S. based Committee For Human Rights in North Korea is skeptical North Korea is prepared to end the intrusive surveillance of visiting foreigners, and permit its own people more freedom and contact with the outside world to facilitate increased economic activity.
“I have the suspicion that what North Korea is interested in is a policy of reform without opening,” said Hawk at the Seoul human rights conference.
Kim this year has prioritized economic development, after saying his country reached its national security goal to develop nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability. Outside experts dispute North Korea’s ICBM claim, saying further testing is needed to demonstrate operational capability.
The North Korean leader has already instituted numerous reforms that weaken the central government’s control over the economy, including allowing farmers to keep a portion of the crops they produce, tolerating the growth of private markets, and permitting state owned companies to make profits, set wages and fire non-productive employees.
Lee Yoon-jee in Seoul contributed to this report.