Engaging Pyongyang on Human Rights

By Feffer, John | Foreign Policy in Focus, November 20, 2008 | Go to article overview

Engaging Pyongyang on Human Rights


Feffer, John, Foreign Policy in Focus


In the evolving U.S. policy toward North Korea, human rights considerations and national security concerns have competed for precedence. During President George W. Bush's first term, when a more confrontational stance predominated, human rights issues had greater visibility in Washington. For instance, Bush emphasized human rights language when describing the authoritarian political structure and "evil" intent of the North Korean regime. In this atmosphere, Congress passed the North Korea Human Rights Act in 2004 to promote the human rights of North Koreans through an increase in the flow of information to the country, welcoming more North Korean refugees to the United States, and appointing a special envoy on the issue.

In Bush's second term--and particularly after the Republican Party's political losses in the 2006 midterm elections--the administration executed a mid-course correction in its North Korea policy. It abandoned its non-negotiable position on no bilateral discussions with Pyongyang and no interim rewards on the path toward the dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear programs. During this about-face on North Korea policy, human rights issues took a back seat to the central national security preoccupation: namely, the nonproliferation goal of eliminating North Korea's nuclear programs.

Meanwhile, the human rights situation in North Korea didn't change in any significant way--it remains deplorable--nor did U.S. policy on North Korean human rights change in any significant regard. Bush still reportedly takes a personal interest in the topic, symbolically represented by a recent piano concert by a North Korean defector at the State Department. What changed was the relative importance of human rights vis-a-vis security considerations.

Hearing from the Special Envoy

This shift in policy toward North Korea from confrontation to engagement meant a shift in primary actor. Christopher Hill, the chief negotiator in the Six Party Talks, began to shape North Korea policy far more than hardliners like former UN ambassador John Bolton (who left the administration after the 2006 elections). Except for the times when journalists went to Bolton for an incendiary critique of administration policy, the issue of human rights seemed to disappear from the public realm. This lack of public discussion prompted conservative commentator Nicholas Eberstadt to ask in December 2007: "Have you heard from President Bush's special envoy for human rights in North Korea over the past year? Neither has anybody else."

When Special Envoy for Human Rights Jay Lefkowitz decided to speak out shortly thereafter, he quickly encountered pushback from his own colleagues in the Bush administration. In a January 17, 2008 presentation at the American Enterprise Institute, where Eberstadt introduced him, Lefkowitz called into question the lack of inclusion of human rights in the Six Party Talks, complained about South Korea's policies toward the North, and dismissed North Korea's seriousness about negotiating. The State Department expressed its displeasure with Lefkowitz's evaluation by removing his statement from its website. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said sternly that "[Lefkowitz] doesn't know what's going on in the six-party talks, and he certainly has no say on what American policy will be in the six-party talks." The administration that appointed Lefkowitz in 2004 was clearly unhappy with his mandate in 2008.

With nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the United States slowly moving forward, the issue of human rights hangs in the balance. Congress reauthorized the North Korean Human Rights Act in September. U.S. human rights activists have shifted their focus beyond congressional strategies to new fields of international activism. And the public awaits the Obama administration's policy on North Korea. The new administration should consider integrating human rights and economic engagement in an approach that goes "beyond demonization," in scholar Katharine Moon's phrase, and that can improve the everyday human security of North Koreans in their benighted country. …

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