Dear President Biden,
On behalf of 11 non-governmental organizations and coalitions, we are writing to urge you to re-prioritize human rights in the context of future policy and negotiations involving North Korea. In the context of security and weapons counter-proliferation strategies, the freedom, health, and well-being of the 25 million people of North Korea is too often relegated to a distant tertiary status.
For 70 years, the North Korean government has oppressed its people and isolated them from the world, and systemic denials of basic rights have led to widespread, sustained, and severe poverty. Now, in the context of Covid-19, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is using the pandemic to further entrench his already firm grip on power, installing harsh new controls on the distribution of food and products, stopping all information flows into the country, and entirely closing its border with China.
With reported shortages of food and basic supplies, serious concerns have been raised about mass famine. In a statement on April 8, even Kim Jong Un himself referenced the “obstacles and difficulties ahead of us,” announcing orders to the country to “wage another more difficult ‘Arduous March,’” exactly the propaganda term used by the government in the 1990s to mask a devastating famine in which the government’s refusal to allow imports or food assistance, and the failures and injustices of its food distribution system, killed hundreds of thousands of people, and possibly more.
We recognize the significance of North Korea’s threats to global security, and we understand why policymaking by the U.S and its allies focuses on counter-proliferation issues. But decades of failure to hold the North Korean government accountable for its human rights abuses have only served to entrench totalitarian rule, and this has made the work of weapons counter-proliferation even harder.
Negotiations with North Korea need to address improvements on human rights issues and bring the country into the international community. Many North Korea experts, including some who have participated in previous talks, now acknowledge that pressing human rights issues at the UN and raising human rights in negotiations are not just the right thing to do, they are practical necessities for any successful negotiations with Kim Jong Un.
We are writing to ask you to:
Re-prioritize human rights issues in strategy discussions about North Korea, and commit to incorporating human rights into future negotiations with North Korea, while urging the government of South Korea to do the same. For the United States, human rights must be part of diplomatic negotiations by law, according to the terms the 2016 North Korea Human Rights Act, since broad relief from U.S. sanctions – a key point of leverage in negotiations – cannot occur without North Korea making progress on human rights. As the Helsinki Accords show, inter-linking security considerations in treaty negotiations with human rights goals can be self-reinforcing. Maintaining a closed and repressive political system, prioritizing the leadership’s survival and maintenance of power over the rights of its people, and using forced labor and diverting resources away from the people, are precisely what enables the North Korean government to develop nuclear weapons and missiles. In any case, any sustained diplomatic progress, or successful and durable verification of a counter-proliferation process, will only be possible if North Korea begins cooperating with the United Nations system in general, including its human rights mechanisms.
Increase action at the UN level. For several years after a ground-breaking 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry report on human rights in North Korea, the US and allies supported increased attention to North Korea’s human rights record at the UN level, including several debates in the formal agenda of the UN Security Council, helping to acknowledge that abuses constitute threats to international peace and security. During those debates, some countries even raised the idea of a formal Security Council resolution referring the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court. Despite the obvious political roadblocks to such a resolution, Security Council debates and ongoing attention at the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly clearly impacted Kim Jong Un and his government, as the strength and vociferousness of their responses showed. The U.S. government should use its seat at the Security Council to re-establish regular discussions on North Korea’s human rights record as a critical component of any assessment of the risk posed by Pyongyang on the Korean peninsula and the region.
Elevate the U.S. Special Envoy on North Korean Human Rights. The administration should prioritize the appointment of the congressionally mandated U.S. ambassador on human rights issues by nominating a high-level ambassador and placing the ambassador in all administration meetings on North Korea, talks with foreign governments, and at all negotiations with North Korea. Doing so will signal the prioritization of human rights in North Korea policy to the North Korean government and ensure that a senior voice within the administration will be focused on the rights of North Korean people.
Increase North Korean people’s access to information. Despite the North Korean government’s draconian restrictions on foreign information, North Korean refugees report the strong desire for and the powerful effects of foreign information among North Koreans, including its role in empowering forces of change within the country. The United States should invest more in the North Korean people’s access to information through robust support for Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, funding for civil society efforts, and initiatives by other relevant government agencies.
Protect North Korean refugees. North Koreans risk their lives to escape the government’s stifling repression and find safety and freedom. Even beyond the humanitarian importance of ensuring their safety, escapees are a crucial source of insight and information from inside North Korea, and after resettlement regularly send information and resources back to their home communities, which may contribute to future change in the country. Escape and safe passage have become even more difficult since the Covid-19 pandemic. The U.S. government should increase efforts to protect those risking their lives for freedom, including by maintaining pressure on the Chinese government to not arrest and repatriate North Korean refugees.
Provide humanitarian aid and ensure access. Take steps to ensure that sanctions imposed by the United States or the UN Security Council do not inhibit the delivery and availability of effectively monitored humanitarian relief for the North Korean people, including travel of U.S. citizens, and movement of funds, medicine, and medical equipment. The U.S. should publicly clarify to the UN, financial institutions, and other entities that U.S. law does not penalize such transactions and ensure that entities are not penalized or subjected to sanctions if they are legitimately providing humanitarian or medical supplies. The US should also offer new humanitarian aid to North Korea, or provide UN agencies with more resources for aid, while urging the North Korean government to accept the aid and allow access for monitoring and distribution.
Promote the health and safety of people in North Korea during the Covid-19 pandemic. Urge China, South Korea, Japan, and the European Union and its member states to work together to urge the North Korean government to:
- Restart imports of food and basic necessities;
- Accept humanitarian aid, and allow monitoring and distribution;
- Reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19 by releasing all political prisoners, prisoners nearing the end of their sentences, people held for nonviolent offenses or misdemeanor charges, and prisoners with underlying medical conditions from all detention sites across North Korea, including political prison camps, ordinary prison camps, and labor and pre-trial detention facilities or training facilities.
Thank you for consideration. We would be pleased to discuss these matters further with your staff.
Human Rights Watch
International Christian Concern
International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea
Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights
Liberty in North Korea
North Korea Freedom Coalition
The 88 Project
World Without Genocide