Russian deputy foreign minister Igor Morgulov’s visit to Pyongyang this week is bound once again to thrust Russia’s role in Korean security into Washington’s field of vision. This is especially true given that Morgulov’s meeting comes on the heels of a recent spate of North Korean missile tests.
Issues related to Korean security first and foremost center around the DPRK’s WMD and ballistic missile programs. Yet as Pyongyang and Moscow continue to grow closer, in the midst of the U.S.’s diplomatic offensive toward the North, the U.S. should not fail to consider the Russian Federation’s position in another area crucial to the U.S.’s security interests in North Korea, namely human rights.
“Human rights” is perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind when considering Korean security. Insofar as human rights factors into discussions concerning the security of the Korean peninsula, it is often in a manner that reflects the thinking that promoting human rights in North Korea is separate from, and perhaps even a distraction from, issues of denuclearization.
Nevertheless, the United States, which has arguably been at the forefront of international efforts in pushing for Pyongyang to denuclearize, has shown a keen and consistent interest in seeing the human rights situation in North Korea improve.
For Russia to demand any substantial reforms on the human rights front could, in the Kremlin’s view, open up the possibility of instability on its periphery
One enduring example of this commitment is the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, which was most recently reauthorized in 2018. As prominent defector Ji Seong-ho recently noted at a July 2019 conference in Seoul put together by the Washington, DC-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), the passage of this act helped promote a more positive image of the U.S. among ordinary North Korean citizens.
Furthermore, the United States Code stipulates the creation of a special envoy for North Korean human rights, who is appointed by the White House with the rank of ambassador.
The ambassador, a role that has been unfilled since Obama appointee Robert King’s departure in early 2017, is to submit annual reports to the U.S. Congress until at least 2022 on activities undertaken to promote human rights in the DPRK.
As King himself notes, the Trump administration has taken a “transactional” approach to human rights in the DPRK. Nevertheless, the U.S. Congress, known otherwise as a bastion of partisan in-fighting, approved the 2018 extension of the North Korean Human Rights Act with absolute bipartisan unity.
An American legislature comprised of career lawmakers broadly familiar with U.S. interests and certain to be in office long after the current administration ends can perhaps offer the best sense that Washington’s overall commitment to human rights issues in North Korea remains firm.
Unfortunately for those with a vested interest in seeing human rights in the DPRK improve, the current divide between the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government is hardly the only chasm thwarting the promotion of basic rights in North Korea.
Given that the Korean security crisis has taken on a multilateral nature, it is perhaps inevitable that different countries will have views on North Korean human rights that diverge from those espoused in U.S. foreign policy.
The Russian Federation, a player on the Korean peninsula whose security policies in part at least superficially overlap with the United States, disagrees sharply with Washington not only on the issue of human rights in North Korea but more specifically with how human rights factors into the issue of Korean security.
This is an unfortunate reality, particularly given that an improvement in human rights in North Korea could actually serve the Russian Federation’s interests on the Korean peninsula.
One of the Russian Federation’s key policy interests regarding the DPRK is abolishing economic sanctions against Pyongyang. U.S. policy, for its part, has attached the amelioration of human rights in North Korea as a condition for sanctions relief.
Furthermore, as Signe Poulsen of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights noted at the aforementioned HRNK conference in Seoul last month, human rights is an integral part of economic development in North Korea.
This coincides with the Russian Federation’s eagerness to shore up economic relations with the DPRK as part of a bid to increase the robustness of Russia’s commercial influence across the Korean peninsula.
For the Kremlin, the main security priority is ensuring the political security of the North Korean state
The degree of difference between Russia and the U.S. over Korean security would potentially not be insurmountable if security is limited to the issue of Pyongyang’s WMD program.
After all, Moscow and Washington have come together on occasion to try and rein in Pyongyang’s security provocations.
Yet from the angle of how human rights factor into security, Moscow and Washington’s respective stances do not lend themselves easily to cooperation.
The Russian Federation strongly opposes raising human rights issues at the UN Security Council. Indeed, while Moscow may not be as active on the Korean peninsula as it is in other areas of its foreign policy (such as in Eastern Europe and the Middle East), there is a correlation between Russian activities in these regions and a hardening of its position on human rights at the UN.
Furthermore, in a 2017 interview with Russian state media, the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s human rights department, Anatoly Viktorov, deflected a direct question on whether or not the Russian Federation recognized the grave human rights situation in North Korea.
Rather than outright acknowledging North Korea’s systematic record of large-scale abuse, Viktorov declared that some countries place labels on the DPRK without reflecting on their own internal situation, a veiled but unmistakable reference to the U.S.
For the Kremlin, the main security priority is ensuring the political security of the North Korean state. Vladimir Putin himself has stated recently that security guarantees for Pyongyang were in fact more important than denuclearization.
In 2017, Russia’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Evgeny Zagaynov claimed that resolving and preventing armed conflict was a prerequisite for the implementation of human rights, not vice versa.
The abysmal state of human rights in the DPRK, it goes without saying, is a tool the Kim regime uses to maintain its grip on power. For Russia to demand any substantial reforms on the human rights front could, in the Kremlin’s view, open up the possibility of instability on its periphery.
Russia, like the U.S., sees the denuclearization of North Korea as part of wider efforts at stemming global proliferation.
Yet in addition to major differences in the degree of urgency and how to go about achieving that goal, the inclusion of human rights in U.S. policy as a security issue – and the lack thereof in Russia – underscore a strategic difference that goes beyond denuclearization.
If Moscow and Washington continue to view a blanket issue affecting the lives of some 25 million North Koreans so differently, then a supposedly common vision for the security of the Korean peninsula is a moot point at best.
Behind the rhetoric of a common hope for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, Moscow and Washington’s respective positions on human rights reveal vastly different views on how a real and lasting peace in Korea can be achieved.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: KCNA
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