An unexpected outcome of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics could be a thaw in relations between North Korea and the United States. While there are not any concrete decisions about meetings between North Korea, South Korea, and the US, the prospect of talks raises far-ranging implications for stability and security, both in the region and globally. However, any talks should not ignore the continued human rights abuses and crimes perpetrated against the people of North Korea.
Following March 5 talks between South and North Korean leaders, reports that North Korea was open to talks with the United States emerged and were well-received by US President Donald Trump. No official talks have yet been confirmed, and previous attempts to negotiate denuclearization on the Peninsula have failed.
Nonetheless, the prospect of denuclearization in one of the globe’s most turbulent regions is appealing. Full-fledged nuclear war might be unlikely, but rhetoric, on both sides, about the possibility is unsettling. The Council for Foreign Relations recognizes the North Korean crisis as one of six conflicts that pose a threat to US interests, alongside active conflicts in the Middle East and long-simmering tensions in the South and East China Sea. Since January 2016, North Korea has conducted 44 missile launches, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative. North Korea fired missiles toward Japan in 2017, and tested a powerful nuclear bomb last September that caused a 6.3 magnitude earthquake. The potential costs of war for soldiers and civilians also support efforts to avoid military confrontation in favor of diplomatic solutions.
However, North Korea’s appalling disregard for human rights should not be ignored before, during, or after any conversations among the three countries. Condemned by the United Nations for human rights abuses, many North Koreans face malnutrition and basic material need, imprisonment in “reeducation camps,” and political and economy oppression, to say nothing of the complete dearth of freedoms to speak, worship, assemble, or even think free of relentless propaganda.
Astoundingly, North Korea presents itself as “a country where genuine human rights are firmly protected and successfully put into practice as the working masses’ democratic freedom and rights are most thoroughly defended and most brilliantly realized,” according to a white paper from the Human Rights Institute of the North’s Academy of Social Sciences.
The rest of the world, and especially the United States and South Korea as they enter possible détente with the North, must not be swayed solely by the words of leaders who rely so fundamentally on bald-faced lies to perpetuate their power.
We should pay attention, instead, to the stories of defectors and refugees who risk their lives, and the lives of their families, to escape the brutality of Kim’s Communist regime. Dissidents like Hyeonseo Lee and Ji Seong-ho, who speak out against the regime and remind us about the central role of truth and freedom in democratic societies. They remind us, as Lee puts it, that North Korea is not a democracy, not a republic, and not for the people, whatever the nation’s official title.
Compared to 2016, the number of North Korean defectors arriving in South Korea dropped by over 20 percent from 1,418 to 1,127 in 2017. The escape, generally through less than friendly Chinese territory, was never easy, but is increasingly more challenging due to increased crackdowns against refugees in China and tighter border restrictions. Refugees who are caught face imprisonment or death, as demonstrated in the recent story of five North Koreans whose attempt to flee North Korea ended tragically and highlights the risks people take to reach a better life.
In 1947, President Truman urged Congress “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” The modern Kim regime offers a living example of a system—a communist system—that “relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio; fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.”
The imperative to stand for democratic values and ideals, to balance safety and stability with fundamental human rights and liberties, lay at the core of the fight against communism in the twentieth century. In the twenty-first, we should again balance the appeal of denuclearization and a less globally threatening North Korea with the rights of the citizens of North Korea.
Whatever transpires in the coming months with regards to diplomatic talks, leaders should not forget the daily human cost of the Kim regime that drives thousands of people to risk imprisonment, torture, and death to escape from the Hermit Kingdom.