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North Korean human rights record likely to stay separated from nuclear diplomacy

Bruce Klingner [Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia, The Heritage Foundation]: "North Korea has repeatedly been cited by the US government, United Nations, and independent human rights groups as one of the most egregious violators of human rights. North Korean citizens face abysmal living conditions, pervasive government surveillance, and a total lack of political and religious freedom. Overlaid on this depressing situation is a justice system that allows several generations of relatives to be sent to prison for the political crimes of an individual such as criticizing the leadership, including the "crime" of sitting on a newspaper photograph of leader Kim Jong-il. North Korea has a gulag prison system - some of the camps are the size of the District of Columbia - with atrocities that rival those of Nazi Germany, including forced abortions and medical experimentation.

While there is unanimity of view on the human rights depravities of the North Korean regime, there is disagreement on how best to improve conditions for North Koreans. Some advocate a policy of "name and blame" where North Korean human rights abuses are highlighted and condemned in international venue, including reports by UN Special Rapporteur for North Korea Vitit Muntarbhorn. Some human rights advocates favor incorporating human rights in any engagement with North Korea, including the Six Party Talks nuclear negotiations. Activist human rights groups advocate using tactics that weakened support for the Soviet Union and East European regimes by forcing the introduction of news from the outside world into North Korea. This has been done in a variety of means, including broadcasting radio transmissions; smuggling in radios and Bibles; and using balloons to carry information on the abuses of the North Korean regime.

Others argue that such a confrontational approach is ineffective and only causes North Korea to further isolate itself. During the ten years of progressive administrations in South Korea under Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, Seoul refrained from any criticism of North Korea for fear it would undermine Seoul's engagement policy toward the North. Those governments sought to bring about change in the nature of the North Korean regime by providing unconditional aid and benefits in hopes of lowering tension and Pyongyang's claimed feeling of being threatened. Ironically, those South Korean administrations were staffed by human rights advocates who had rebelled against South Korea's authoritarian governments and yet were blatantly silent about far more horrendous acts by Pyongyang. Seoul was harshly criticized by the international community for repeatedly refusing to sign the annual UN resolution condemning North Korean human rights violations.

The Obama administration has yet to make known its view on how to prioritize reducing North Korean security threats, including its nuclear and missile forces, against improving human rights in the North. While human rights advocates would hope to insert humanitarian issues into any forum with North Korea, the predominant view will be to not risk derailing potential progress in denuclearizing North Korea by incorporating "extraneous" contentious issues. As such, human rights and security issues will likely continue to be addressed in separate venues, though long-term issues such as formalizing diplomatic relations with North Korea will more directly address Pyongyang's human rights abuses."

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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