Korea summit: The importance of human rights

By Dr John Hemmings

The scene of South Korean leader Moon Jae-in and his wife being greeted by Kim Jong-un and his wife on the red carpet at Pyongyang International Airport earlier this morning was yet another reassuring sign that despite the seeming deadlock in US-North Korean negotiations, diplomacy is carrying on nevertheless. In a relationship nearly bereft of trust, Moon’s personal touch has been pivotal in getting things restarted, time after time.

Recently, the Henry Jackson Society wrote a report on diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula in cooperation with Kings College London and the School of Oriental and Africa Studies. With input from North Korea experts from Cambridge University, Chatham House, and the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, we laid out a table of what we hoped were realistic recommendations for negotiating a lasting peace on the Peninsula.

While presenting the findings to MPs and journalists in Parliament last week, a journalist asked us a hugely important question: “What about human rights?” What do we do if North Korea disarms, but continues to brutally govern a country, where – to quote a 2014 UN report on the matter – “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed…based on state policies”?

That journalist is right. This is a huge issue for the Society and one that has been mostly overlooked during this round of negotiations. We believe there needs to be a realization that human rights are of equal importance to a peace process. The main reason for this is that the West cannot in good conscience adhere to a deal that completely ignores values. We can sign a deal that ignores the values, but can we live by it. Here at HJS, we don’t think so.

So what can we do going forward?

We must change the equation for North Korea. We must make Pyongyang realize if it brutally suppresses a Benghazi-style uprising after a peace deal is announced, all bets are off. We must make North Korea’s leadership realize that its system must reform and lessen its tyranny over the public.

Now, the West is increasingly under pressure from authoritarian regimes, both abroad and at home, as they harness private capital and technology to solidify their domestic systems. We will have to use economic incentives and the attractiveness of our ideology to win the long struggle with those who’d govern without consent. As 1989 reminds us, such regimes are not invulnerable. If North Korea comes in from the cold, we will ensure that it stays out of the cold.




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