When President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet in Singapore on June 12, most observers assume their negotiations will focus squarely on weapons proliferation issues and a possible peace treaty for the Korean Peninsula. But the hard truth of the matter is that Trump and Kim, by necessity, must talk about North Korea’s human rights record.
Under a 2016 law passed by Congress, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, the president is obligated to investigate and sanction people and entities complicit in human rights abuses in North Korea, not just those involved in weapons proliferation and other illicit activities. The law imposes a financial ban and asset freezes on the government and its component parts, and the Workers Party of Korea, of which Kim is the chairman.
Specifically, the law mandates the president to place on the Treasury Department’s “Specially Designated Nationals” list any person who “knowingly engages in, is responsible for, or facilitates serious human rights abuses by the Government of North Korea,” or “knowingly engages in, is responsible for, or facilitates censorship by the Government of North Korea,” among other criteria. After being placed on the list, designated persons are typically unable to use most international financial systems and are forbidden from traveling to the United States. (Other countries often impose similar sanctions, following U.S. designations.)
The act provides that these measures can be waived short term for special cases (such as to allow a sanctioned diplomat to travel to the United States), and sanctions can be suspended only if North Korea takes major steps to end weapons proliferation and related activities and addresses human rights — for example, by “accounting for and repatriating” citizens of other countries who were abducted by North Korea, “accepting and beginning to abide by internationally recognized standards for the distribution and monitoring of humanitarian aid,” and “taking verified steps to improve living conditions in its political prison camps,” among other criteria.
In other words, the legislation mandates that the United States negotiate on human rights issues alongside proliferation issues. President Trump cannot fully suspend sanctions on North Korea unless North Korea agrees to key reforms.
Notably, the law imposes restrictions not just on these North Korean entities, but on any companies, banks or other entities that might want to do business with entities controlled by the North Korean government. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in the first days after the summit date was set, spoke of U.S. private investment in North Korea, should Kim agree to denuclearization. That would be illegal, under the 2016 law, unless North Korea also agrees to key human rights reforms.
In any case, raising the topic of North Korea’s human rights abuses will be necessary as a practical matter. As many foreign policy experts, religious leaders, and human rights advocates have pointed out, human rights and weapons proliferation are inextricably linked.
Pyongyang’s weapons program benefits from forced labor. Funds for military activities are obtained from remittances that come from the forced labor of North Koreans sent overseas, as well as forced labor domestically. And the massive cost of the nuclear weapons program doubtlessly contributes to the widespread poverty in the country, which is among the world’s poorest. It is hard to credibly suggest progress on weapons proliferation can be durable or verifiable if North Korea remains a completely closed and totalitarian state. Denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula really can’t be achieved without progress on human rights.
Trump administration officials need to consider carefully exactly what the president could offer Kim in Singapore. In doing so, officials need to follow the law and appreciate that the issues at hand are not just North Korea’s nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, but its gulags of work camps and torture rooms — not to mention its abject failure to provide its citizens with adequate housing, food, health and child care, education, or other basic human needs.
North Korea’s catastrophic human rights record is inextricably linked with the threat of its nuclear weapons, and addressing those abuses cannot be avoided.
John Sifton is the Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, which he joined in 2001. He founded a public interest investigation firm, One World Research, which he directed from 2007 to 2010. He previously worked for the International Rescue Committee, primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and at a refugee advocacy organization in Albania and Kosovo.