North Korea tested its first nuclear device in 2006 and may soon test a missile capable of reaching an American city with such a weapon. This rising threat has now led the United States to widen its options to include a preemptive strike on the North’s weapon sites. The US and its allies remain frustrated that their main option, a tightening of economic sanctions, has not curbed the North’s nuclear threat.
But there is one option – casting a sharper spotlight on the massive abuses in North Korea – that has not been tried enough and yet seems to be having some effect.
The leaders in Pyongyang have become very outspoken ever since 2014 when the United Nations began to ratchet up its exposure of the North’s many atrocities. The regime may be worried that the North Korean people, despite living under tight censorship, are learning that the world is standing up for their human rights.
The strategy behind this option is to make the regime more concerned about its people than about building up its military threat. As Robert King, former US special envoy for North Korean human rights, recently explained: “A regime that puts the welfare and well-being of its own people well below its acquisition of nuclear weapons will not hesitate to use those nuclear weapons against others.”
Many recent high-level defectors from the North attest to the increasing awareness among North Koreans for the world’s concerns for them. The UN’s special envoy on North Korean human rights, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has met with many defectors and come away “impressed that they were well aware of their rights...”
The UN crossed an important threshold in 2014 when a special UN commission issued a 400-page report detailing the many abuses in North Korea, comparing them to atrocities committed by Nazi Germany. Then last year, the UN General Assembly recommended that North Korea be taken to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. And this week, the UN Human Rights Council again took up a measure to condemn the country’s abuses, which include jailing more than 100,000 political prisoners.
A good precedent for this strategy is the West’s highlighting of human rights violations in the Soviet Union starting in the 1970s. The 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which called for European countries to honor human rights, helped to empower dissidents behind the Iron Curtain to challenge the regimes of the Soviet empire. The late Czech dissident Václav Havel said the West’s actions empowered dissidents to “live in the truth” and stand up for basic rights.
Another useful tactic of that period was a US law, known as Jackson-Vanik, that gave special trading rights to the Soviet Union in return for it allowing Soviet Jews to emigrate. The law tied human rights to Soviet economic interests, but it also sent a strong message to the Russian people about resisting their regime, which eventually collapsed in 1991.
Telling the truth about the wrongs of the North Korean regime has a way of dissolving its legitimacy, both with its own people and with its only ally, China. As the North lobs more test missiles toward other countries, a good response from the rest of the world is to lob back more information to the North Korean people about the nature of their regime.