US Should Refocus on Rights Concerns: North Korea

Human Rights Watch

The United States government should emphasize the promotion of human rights in its policies on North Korea, 11 human rights groups said today in a letter to President Joe Biden. The groups, including Human Rights Watch, urged the US government to integrate human rights concerns into future negotiations with North Korea, and not separate or make them secondary to security and counter-proliferation issues.

“Human rights need to be part of any and all US negotiations with North Korea,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, who also testified before a US congressional panel on human rights on the Korean peninsula on April 15, 2021. “Human rights and weapons proliferation issues cannot be separated, since the North Korea military depends on widespread forced labor and a massive diversion of government resources from basic human needs for arms development.”

The Biden administration is currently reviewing its policy on North Korea. The groups said that US law makes broad sanctions relief for North Korea contingent on human rights improvements and that counter-proliferation experts now acknowledge that successful monitoring of weapons agreements requires more general reforms by the North Korean government.

The US should also increase efforts at the United Nations Security Council for new debates on the human rights situation in North Korea as a threat to regional peace and security, the groups said. Biden should promptly appoint a special US envoy on North Korean human rights issues, increase support for North Korean people’s access to information, and act to protect North Korean refugees.

In the context of Covid-19, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has used the pandemic to further entrench his already firm grip on power, install harsh new controls on the distribution of food and products, stopped all information flows into the country, and entirely closed North Korea’s border with China. These steps appear to be connected to reported shortages of food and basic supplies, which have raised serious concerns about mass famine.

The US should work with China, South Korea, Japan, and the European Union and its member states to urge the North Korean government to restart imports of food and other necessities.

The North Korean government should accept humanitarian aid while allowing monitoring and distribution activity and reduce the spread of Covid-19 among prisoners, the groups said.

“Any sustained diplomatic progress or durable counter-proliferation process will need the North Korean government to improve its cooperation with the UN system in general, to allow enough openness for genuine monitoring,” Sifton said.

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