Some of the world’s worst human rights violations take place in North Korea.
Estimates say between 80,000 and 120,000 individuals are inhumanely detained in North Korea’s six known, operational political prison camps.
A United Nations Commission of Inquiry report on human rights revealed that the North Korean regime regularly committed crimes against humanity, including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, and forced abortions.
To highlight these serious abuses, The Heritage Foundation hosted a panel discussion on Oct. 29 with experts Jung Pak of the Brookings Institution, Dan Aum of the National Bureau of Asian Research, and Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea to examine ways to integrate human rights into U.S. negotiations with North Korea.
The purpose of the discussion was to demonstrate that advancing human rights in North Korea and making progress in nuclear negotiations are not mutually exclusive propositions.
Improving human rights in North Korea is directly related to advancing U.S. national security objectives.
In spite of this, human rights issues played little to no role in negotiations with North Korea at the Singapore summit in June.
“Human rights abuse, along with nuclear capabilities, constitute the two pillars that keep the North Korean regime functioning,” Pak said at the Heritage event.
If that’s the case, then both issues should be raised in tandem in negotiations with Pyongyang.
In fact, human rights abuses are part of the reason the regime maintains its grip on power. Fear of detainment for dissenters and their families renders freedom of expression nonexistent.
Inhumane penalties against political dissenters, including the threat of having three generations of their family sent to a political prison camp for voicing opposition to the regime, leave the vast majority of North Koreans powerless.
Addressing these human rights issues can empower the people to confront the regime and its anti-American propaganda. Diplomatic resources may best be utilized supporting the people, rather than entertaining the regime.
Panelists at the event noted that North Korea benefits directly from human rights violations. The 2018 Global Slavery Index estimates that 2.6 million people live in “modern slavery” in North Korea.
Prisoners in “kyohwaso” (re-education camps) are conscripted to lives of hard labor with no pay in inhuman living conditions. It’s estimated that forced labor in North Korea generates $975 million annually for the regime.
Prison camps also serve as a testing ground for the development of weapons of mass destruction in North Korea. Reports from defectors indicate that chemical weapons are being widely developed and tested on political prisoners, for example.
The assassination of Kim Jong Nam—dictator Kim Jong Un’s own half-brother—in February 2017 in Malaysia with VX nerve agent exposed the regime’s ability with chemical weapons.
Leaving such atrocities against human rights unchecked will continue to reinforce the Kim regime, regardless of new diplomatic advancements with the U.S.
According to Aum, human rights is a powerful tool for suasion. Counter to the common understanding that North Korea avoids any discussion of human rights, history shows that putting pressure on Pyongyang produces measurable results.
For example, in 2014, when the U.N. General Assembly took recommendations from the U.N. Commission of Inquiry reports on human rights, North Korea responded by sending its representative to the U.N. for the first time in 15 years.
For real progress to be made in North Korea, addressing human rights abuses must be a main objective, not a collateral goal.
As Heritage analysts have long argued, the U.S. should find ways to integrate human rights into negotiations with North Korea.
The U.S. could, for example, request access to political prison camps for the U.N., the World Food Program, or the International Committee of the Red Cross. It could also press North Korea to release all women and children from political prison camps.
It’s time for America to once again be a voice for the voiceless in North Korea and to press Kim to improve his treatment of the North Korean people.
Hyun Suk Kim is an ASAN visiting fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.
Olivia Enos is an Asian Studies Center Research Associate within The Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Daily Signal.