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The subtext of human rights discourse on the Korean Peninsula

Image credit: (Stephan); Creative Commons: Flickr

Something is troubling the United States-South Korea alliance. And on the 70th celebration of International Human Rights Day, the allies’ contrasting pronouncements offered a glimpse into what lies at the heart of these mounting tensions.

Speaking in Seoul on 10 December 2018 South Korean President Moon Jae-in did not explicitly reference North Korea, but noted that the “vestige of the Cold War” made it difficult to pursue any meaningful improvements to human rights across the Peninsula. Moon emphasised the importance of securing a lasting peace and pursuing co-prosperity as a necessary precursor to addressing these issues. By contrast, on the same day the US State Department released a report detailing censorship and rights abuses in the DPRK, and slapped targeted sanctions on three high-ranking figures within the North Korean regime, including Choe Ryong Hae Kim Jong-un’s apparent right-hand man. These penalties came days after Washington dropped efforts to secure a 5th annual meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Pyongyang’s human rights abuses.

Cooling tensions and a flurry of diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula in 2018 had largely seen human rights issues relegated to the periphery of negotiations and public discourse alike. While it now seems that the topic has reentered the realms of public diplomacy, the contrasting tones struck by leaders in Seoul and Washington are a subplot to a bigger problem: the growing daylight between the allies’ means, goals and priorities in engaging Pyongyang.

Before this year’s summitry, the Trump administration - and the President most memorably - publicly attacked North Korea’s human rights record as part of a Maximum Pressure campaign to bring the Kim regime’s nuclear and missile programs to heel. Yet Washington’s language on the issue softened markedly at the first offer of a face-to-face meeting between Kim and Trump.

In fact, human rights were entirely omitted from the Singapore Declaration. Though he claimed to have raised the issue with Kim in person, Trump regularly dismissed the human rights matter in subsequent media interviews, preferring to express his optimism that Kim would “fully take advantage” of his country’s vast economic potential in the interests of his citizens. However, tangible progress has not materialised. Cancelled or fruitless meetings between US and DPRK officials, and mounting evidence that North Korea has forged ahead with its weapons programs in what some have (perhaps mistakenly) called a “great deception,” have sobered much of the heady optimism that denuclearisation could be achieved quickly, if at all. In this light, the State Department’s latest penalties against the Kim regime reflect mounting frustration in Washington with Pyongyang’s stalling negotiating tactics, and the subsequent glacial progress of diplomacy

By contrast, the Moon administration has persistently omitted human rights issues from public and diplomatic discourse with North Korea. This approach has been adopted in order to sustain the positive trajectory of inter-Korean relations. Like Singapore, declarations from the Panmunjom and Pyongyang summits both omitted human rights, focussing instead on reducing military tensions and pursuing peace and co-prosperity. Responding to criticisms from DPRK rights groups in South Korea and international organisations like Human Rights Watch, Seoul’s Unification Ministry has argued that the government is pursuing rights improvements “in the notion of universal value and ethnicity”. The argument goes that mutual economic prosperity on the Korean Peninsula is essential for laying the foundations for future rights improvements in North Korea. Even so, it is ironic that the ‘human rights President’ has made little mention of human rights across the border, even diverting funding from national human rights initiatives to support economic engagement with Pyongyang instead.

Lawmakers in Seoul and Washington undoubtedly want to see improvements in North Korean human rights, considering that both countries have passed or extended relevant legislation in recent years. But it’s also clear that those presently at the helm of policymaking in both capitals have diverging perceptions of the utility of human rights issues in engaging North Korea.

Washington seems to consider public criticism of the regime’s rights abuses an effective way to signal impatience with Pyongyang’s sly negotiating tactics. Conversely, Seoul has co-opted particular elements of human rights discourse into a narrative that justifies its peace-building and economic co-prosperity agenda. Either way, it is clear that real improvements in North Korean rights conditions are not at the top of either the Trump or Moon administration’s priority lists. Rather, they each invoke human rights discourse to justify the pursuit of other more pressing priorities.

All considered, diverging views on the utility of DPRK human rights discourse do not themselves constitute an independent ‘wedge issue’. Rather, they figure as a subplot to the broader problem of conflicting priorities between denuclearisation or economic cooperation within the alliance relationship. South Korea and the US are clearly “weakening their alliance on their own” through their own inability to reconcile diverging interests or communicate effectively, without much active intervention from North Korea. Nevertheless, given the power of human rights discourse to capture public imagination, it will be interesting to see exactly how alliance mediators - and North Korean diplomats - address this particular subplot going forward.

Tom Corben is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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