Dealing with North Korea: Nukes Versus Human Rights?

Guest Commentary

After refusing to talk to Pyongyang for years, the Bush administration chose “appeasement”—as its own officials often deride negotiations. So far the administration’s bet has paid off, but critics contend that the United States has sacrificed human rights in the bargain. However, stopping North Korea’s nuclear program is necessary to achieve progress elsewhere.

Against all odds, the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has begun dismantling its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and turned over 19,000 pages of documents on its nuclear activities. In return, the United States has lifted sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act and delisted Pyongyang as a terrorist state. Washington previously agreed to unfreeze some North Korean bank accounts and provided 134,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil.

In theory, the United States now will seek further explanations and verify the North’s claims, leading to a North Korean turnover of nuclear materials, Western inspections, Washington’s recognition of the DPRK, the lifting of American sanctions, and abundant trade and aid from the United States, South Korea, and Japan. The Korean peninsula will again be nuclear-free.

There is abundant reason for skepticism. Despite the movement forward, as the Cato Institute’s Ted Galen Carpenter observed, “we are still a long distance from Washington’s stated objective of a complete, verifiable and irreversible end to the program.”

The North Korean declaration was six months late and incomplete, with no accounting for weapons production or proliferation activities. There is no discussion of the parallel uranium enrichment program Pyongyang is thought to possess, and the decommissioned reactor is two decades old, with a limited useful life. Moreover, we cannot be certain that the North has not developed underground facilities. And Pyongyang has a history of breaking agreements.

But dealing with the DPRK always is a case of choosing the least bad alternative. Military strikes against the North’s nuclear facilities, which are being dismantled, would be bizarre, and would likely trigger North Korean retaliation against Seoul, if not a full-scale invasion. Additional sanctions wouldn’t likely achieve much against a regime that has survived the mass starvation of its people, and China is unlikely to back such a policy.

So playing out the Six-Party Talks, with heightened U.S.-North Korean engagement, appears to be the only policy with any hope of success.

But Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, complained: “Any agreement with North Korea must include guarantees that would alleviate the widespread and despicable suffering of the North Korean people at the hands of their own government.” Japan has similarly lobbied the United States to tie the lifting of sanctions to a North Korean accounting of the status of Japanese kidnapped by the DPRK.

The North Korean regime is uniquely odious. Improving human rights should be a priority, but the measures chosen should have a reasonable chance of success. Maintaining sanctions does not.

The United States has never had diplomatic relations or trade ties with the North. Over the last two decades the DPRK has suffered through murderous famine rather than yield to Western pressure. Maintaining sanctions—which won’t be lifted in practice until other regulations are removed months from now—would not cause Pyongyang to remake itself.

In an odd sense, human rights are more important than nuclear weapons to Kim Jong-Il and his apparatchiks. Bombs can be traded away to achieve regime security, while domestic politics is regime security. To give up totalitarianism is to give up control.

Thus, allowing human rights to block the current deal is more likely to prevent a settlement of any kind. And if the nuke issue remains unresolved—especially if Pyongyang decides to augment its arsenal—then no solution to human rights is likely. It is hard to see why an angry, isolated, impoverished, and well-armed North Korea would suddenly agree to treat its captive population like human beings.

In short, the West’s priority should be to disarm the DPRK. No one should have any illusions about the likelihood that current negotiations will achieve that end. But even effectively freezing the North’s arsenal, preventing production of any new plutonium, would be a major positive step. If such an agreement in turn yielded political dialogue and economic cooperation, reform would be more likely to come to the North.

There are no guarantees, of course. But we should not make the perfect the enemy of the good. There will come a time, we all should hope and pray, when North Korea joins the rest of the world. But in the short term we should concentrate on preventing it from becoming a permanent member of the nuclear club. Then many other changes would become possible