World leaders often speak of “the threat posed by North Korea,” but rarely do they address the entirety of that threat. Typically, they focus on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, its armed forces and the prospect of a military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula that could become a nuclear conflagration. On occasion, the country’s growing cyber capabilities, its illicit arms sales or its counterfeiting operations are denounced.
In recent months, far less frequently has attention been paid to the extraordinary human rights abuses that occur in North Korea or the government’s disrespect for international law. That is why the recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on North Korea is so important: It reminds the world of the systemic repression of rights by the Pyongyang government.
The report is based on interviews with 54 North Koreans who left the country after 2011 and eight former North Korean officials who fled the country. It concluded that sexual and gender-based violence is “endemic in North Korea.” It notes that “unwanted sexual contact and violence … has come to be accepted as part of ordinary life: Sexual abuse by officials, and the impunity they enjoy, is linked to larger patterns of sexual abuse and impunity in the country.”
South Korea’s Institute for National Unification reached a similar conclusion in a white paper on North Korean human rights released in July. It noted that “women are easily exposed to domestic violence, gender-based exploitation and violence in society, and the social conditions where women can be protected from such violence or seek relief were found to be lacking.”
Abuse of women is part of a larger pattern of appalling practices. Earlier this year, Amnesty International claimed that North Korea held up to 120,000 political prisoners in camps, where they were subject to forced labor and torture. Four years ago, a U.N. commission agreed, concluding that systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations by the North Korean government — forced abortion, rape and other forms of sexual violence, along with murder, imprisonment, enslavement and torture — constituted crimes against humanity.
Remarkably, these abuses are being overlooked in the feverish diplomacy with North Korea. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has decided that peninsular rapprochement is his top priority and ensuring progress demands the subordination of human rights in his conversations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. U.S. President Donald Trump fervently denounced North Korean human rights practices in speeches prior to his meeting with Kim in Singapore in June but has gone silent on the topic since then.
Peace on the Korean Peninsula and rapprochement between the two Koreas, as well as between North Korea and the rest of the world, is important, but not if it means turning a blind eye to abuses that are practiced there. The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, has declared that he is “very concerned” about the failure to mention human rights in official statements that followed the summits this year, and does not know if the topic even came up in meetings. Referring to the conclusions of the 2014 U.N. commission of inquiry, he said recently that the human rights situation “has not changed on the ground in North Korea despite this important progress on security, peace and prosperity.”
This problem is not being totally ignored, however. Japan and the European Union have been working on a resolution condemning North Korean human rights abuses to submit to the Third Committee of the United Nations. If approved, it will be considered by the U.N. General Assembly. The document calls for offenders to be brought before the International Criminal Court for adjudication and punishment. If passed, it will be the 14th consecutive year that the world body has approved a resolution condemning Pyongyang. Significantly, the South Korean government approves of the resolution.
The fact that this is the 14th consecutive debate, and that conditions have not changed says volumes. But they do get Pyongyang’s attention. The regime’s mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency, dismissed a “thinly veiled smear campaign” that is “designed to block the positive trend of the present situation towards dialogue and peace.” Another media outlet charged Japan with trying to undermine the “positive” mood on the Korean Peninsula and using the human rights issue as an “excuse” for more sanctions on Pyongyang.
Japan does not need “an excuse” to sanction North Korea. The regime’s reprehensible human rights policies speak for themselves. It is important to remember that as the world engages Pyongyang, it must address the entirety of North Korean “threats.”
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