Prison camps, child labor, and the restriction of the freedom of expression, religion, and movement: state violence and infringement of basic human rights in North Korea have been a widely discussed problem among academics and policymakers for decades.
While the ‘summit diplomacy’ between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appeared to be opening doors to diplomacy in 2018, many experts, activists, and politicians have been voicing disappointment with the near-absence of human rights issues in the talks.
With North Korea continuing to condemn and reject the international community’s discussion of the DPRK’s human rights violations as a product of “hostile forces that obsess with inveterate hatred against us,” the issue of human rights, despite its gravity and urgency, is a thorny subject, often sidelined amid denuclearization negotiations.
However, with summit diplomacy appearing to have stalled for the moment, human rights expert Olivia Enos argues that it is time U.S. policymakers come up with ways to include the ‘tabooed’ topic in U.S.-DPRK talks going forward.
“North Korea isn’t going to denuclearize overnight. No one expects that. North Korea isn’t going to close all the political prison camps overnight. No one expects that. But we could make these smaller asks along the way,” Enos says.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and readability.
NK News: I saw that you’re writing a series for Forbes on the intersection between national security and human rights. Could you explain that connection a little bit?
Olivia Enos: In my research, from the start, I’ve seen that there’s been this false divorce or bifurcation between national security issues and human rights issues. And I think that over the long term, this ends up hamstringing U.S. policy because it puts issues that actually do relate to the security issues in a separate bucket.
And that has practical implications. The State Department, for example, is structured with a separate bureau for human rights issues from the regional bureau. Human rights issues often don’t get integrated into broader discussions.
With a lot of my work, whether it’s in the context of North Korea, or China, or Burma, I try to demonstrate that some of the national interest-based reasons or the national security concerns that the U.S. has actually might be alleviated, and possibly even better addressed, when we do address the human rights issues in tandem.
One example of this is in a paper I put out before the Singapore Summit. It looked at the connection between U.S. concerns about North Korea’s nuclear proliferation and the prisoners in political prison camps in North Korea.
It tried to look at available open-source information that demonstrates that political prisoners may be used as free labor for the regime in order to develop their nuclear program. There have also been reports that individuals, not only in the prison camp populations but also vulnerable children and the disabled, have had chemical and biological weapons tested on them.
This, to me, demonstrates that North Korea’s ability to proliferate is in part based on its continuation of human rights violations.
NK News: What kind of international laws are these prison camps infringing on?
Olivia Enos: There are a couple of resolutions that the UN Security Council has had that relate to this. Of course, it would violate UN laws on torture, arbitrary imprisonment, all of these types of things.
Some have even asserted that there are indicators of genocide having taken place, others have said apartheid. So, I mean, this is violating so many things.
One of the things that people often forget is that during negotiations the administration would repeatedly say, “well, if you were to give up your nuclear weapons, then sanctions could be removed.” This statement is only a half-truth. Because the reality is that U.S. sanctions actually make their removal contingent on every single prisoner being freed from those political prison camps.
This is the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancements Act, which include some of the toughest sanctions on nuclear and missile programs, but also has these really tough provisions on human rights. And it’s not just the political prison camps, there are other human rights-related provisions under this.
NK News: Beyond the prison camps, what other kinds of human rights issues are still of concern in North Korea?
Olivia Enos: I think people’s minds often do turn to the political prison camps, but they forget that the average North Korean does not enjoy the basic freedoms that folks in Seoul or Washington would enjoy on a daily basis. That means no freedom of expression, that means no freedom of speech, no freedom of religion.
In fact, one of the often-overlooked findings of the UN Commission of Inquiry report is that North Korea is believed to be one of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians. Not just Christians, of course, people of all religious backgrounds.
If individuals are found to have a Bible, whether they’re North Korean or a foreigner, they’re often sent off to interrogation, and often sent to political prison camps. There have even been reports of individuals who had Bibles or were part of smuggling Bibles into North Korea who were publicly executed en masse. I think this was maybe back in 2016.
NK News: What do you feel about high profile North Korean refugees, like Ji Seong-ho, being used in politics?
Olivia Enos: I think that at the time, the President was at least rhetorically committed to promoting human rights issues, and this was a welcome change from the silence of many, many years. But I think, unfortunately, that commitment waned as soon as there was the prospect of meeting Kim Jong Un in Singapore.
That is something to really press the administration on, because they had done really strong advocacy when it came to Otto Warmbier. They secured the release of the three Americans. This should have emboldened U.S. negotiators in recognizing that pressing North Korean human rights issues isn’t going to close doors to negotiations. If anything, it actually helped to build trust and pave the way, in many regards, for the Singapore Summit to happen.
But I think that this abandonment of the rhetorical commitment to promoting human rights is something that the administration needs to be pressed on – both for the cancelation of the Vice President’s speech on human rights issues, also for the failure to hold that debate at the UN. The U.S. had gotten all of the votes in order to hold that debate (this was late last year), and then they didn’t do it.
A lot of times administrations, not only this administration but other administrations, use human rights issues when it’s politically expedient to do so
But Christmas came and went, no Christmas gift from North Korea. But still, people were suffering in political prison camps on Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day, and today. I think that North Korean refugees should take advantage of openings that exist when they see administrations raising human rights issues.
They also shouldn’t be afraid to criticize leaders when they fail to uphold commitments to raise these issues, and when they don’t remain committed to raising these issues at a high profile level.
NK News: You talked about human rights issues in North Korea not closing the door on diplomacy. Could you provide some reasoning for this?
Olivia Enos: I think that the release of the three Americans, as I mentioned before, was really, really promising. I think that this demonstrated that North Korea, at high levels, actually had ears not just to hear but to act on criticism related to human rights issues. Now, some people would say that the release of the three Americans is different because it was North Korea violating the human rights of American citizens.
But I think that if we can make progress in these discrete issues, there’s no reason why we couldn’t make progress on other discrete issues. It’s not going to be overnight. North Korea isn’t going to denuclearize overnight. No one expects that. North Korea isn’t going to close all the political prison camps overnight. No one expects that.
But we could make these smaller asks along the way. For example, if negotiations were still ongoing, we could request access for the World Food Program, for UN agencies, for the International Committee of the Red Cross to have access to the political prison camps to make assessments.
There’s never a bad time to raise human rights issues
And once we’ve assessed the state of those political prison camps, then we can start taking steps toward eventual closure. North Korea says they want sanctions relief, that they want them lifted, but, legally, the U.S. cannot lift those sanctions until every political prisoner is released.
It should be communicated clearly to North Korea that some of the toughest sanctions the U.S. has on the books won’t be lifted until there is forward progress on human rights. I don’t think that North Korea really has a choice. They have to change.
Also, I think that U.S. diplomats need to be much bolder in raising these issues. There’s a standard bureaucracy State Department line where people are much more focused on the national security issues and don’t see the linkage with human rights issues. But I think that there is a real missed opportunity here.
NK News: You talked about incremental steps. Do you think there could be incremental corresponding measures as well for human rights issues?
Olivia Enos: I think that there could be. But, at the end of the day, North Korea is the one that is violating international law. And you don’t give a violator of the law something as a reward.
The release of the three Americans, in this administration’s eyes, was essentially enough to come back to negotiations like it never happened. I don’t think that’s enough.
As for diplomacy, I think there was too much too soon, and too little specificity in the requirements of the Singapore agreement.
NK News: Could you explain a little bit more about your views on the Singapore agreement?
Olivia Enos: I think the Singapore agreement fell far short of any other previous negotiations. There was no specificity concerning the nuclear programs – how, when, timeline, anything.
Human rights were noticeably absent. I think the administration has occasionally said that human rights issues were included in, I think it was Section 4, the return of American remains. But that is, again, an American-centered human rights issue. It doesn’t have to do with the political prison camps.
Then you had President Trump saying really unfortunate things like “Kim Jong Un loves his people,” and making excuses for Kim Jong Un regarding Otto Warmbier at the Hanoi summit.
I think there is a lot to be concerned about, rhetorically, and I think it’s a shame that there was an absence of anything about human rights.
NK News: What about Hanoi?
Olivia Enos: I think one of the interesting revelations about Hanoi was the extent to which the sanctions mattered to the North Koreans. In their post mortem, at the very end of the night when the North Koreans gave their press conference, they said, “we want sanctions removed.” However, the sanctions were not removed.
Having said this, I also think that the U.S. has stopped short on maximum pressure.
NK News: What are your thoughts on maximum pressure?
Olivia Enos: I think it was good to commit to maximum pressure and not so good to not actually actualize maximum pressure.
I don’t think we’ve actually committed to maximum pressure at this point. And one of the reasons that I feel confident about this is because we’ve stopped short of sanctioning Chinese banks. We know that Chinese banks are actively laundering money for the North Korean regime, and, especially after Singapore, you heard both China and Russia saying, “well, there were negotiations so why should we enforce the sanctions anymore?”
This was further emboldened by President Trump getting up and saying, “we have names of 300 individuals and entities who we could be sanctioning, but we’re not because we are in ongoing negotiations.”
I understand some of the mentality behind threatening that, it sounds scary – over 300 entities – but to have those names, if they actually had the legal grounds to sanction those individuals on, it’s against U.S. law to not institute and enforce U.S. law when you know who it is and you know that they’ve done it.
I think that there’s a real need to go back. Let’s start hitting those individuals, let’s start hitting those entities, let’s start hitting the Chinese banks. But also, let’s raise human rights issues, and not because it’s convenient.
One of the things that really frustrates me is that I think that a lot of times administrations, not only this administration but other administrations, use human rights issues when it’s politically expedient to do so.
It should be communicated clearly to North Korea that some of the toughest sanctions the U.S. has on the books won’t be lifted until there is forward progress on human rights
NK News: Do you think this administration is now interested in doing a full-fledged maximum pressure campaign on North Korea?
Olivia Enos: I think that maximum pressure is still there, but I think the focus on North Korea has definitely shifted. I would have said, early on in the first term, that North Korea was one of, if not, at certain times the top foreign policy priority for the administration. It was certainly one of the better fleshed out policy priorities in the Asian region.
But I think that it remains to be seen whether they’re willing to go full throttle and actually make this maximum, as opposed to just a rhetorical commitment to maximum pressure.
NK News: Do you know any politicians or major policymakers who seem interested in including human rights issues in the negotiations? Anyone related to the negotiation itself?
Olivia Enos: I think that Vice President Pence has been a pretty outspoken advocate for human rights issues, and so has Ambassador Brownback, who heads up the religious freedom efforts with the U.S. government. I think both of them have been relatively outspoken on these issues.
I think that there are people who care deeply about human rights issues, but I think that the buck really does stop at the top. And so there has to be political will from the President. While there was at the beginning of the administration, it appears that now there is not. So I think that it’s definitely worth thinking about.
NK News: How would you persuade those involved in negotiations to include the human rights issue? How would negotiators be able to talk about human rights issues without the danger of it being termed as hostile policy and closing doors?
Olivia Enos: I would press U.S. negotiators to provide any examples (maybe there’s one or two, I’m not sure) of times when they have raised human rights issues and North Korea fully walked away from the table.
For that matter, I would press U.S. negotiators and diplomats to provide examples of this not just in Asia, whether it’s China or Burma or otherwise, where people have walked away from the negotiating table because they raised human rights issues.
This is a line that is repeated, time and time again, and no specific examples are ever given where this has happened. And it honestly leads me to believe that it just doesn’t happen. And it doesn’t happen because U.S. negotiators aren’t bold and don’t raise these issues.
I would encourage them, one, to be bold. I think my second line of defense would be to say all of the ways that the human rights issues feed into the national security concerns that the U.S. has.
There’s been this false divorce or bifurcation between national security issues and human rights issues. And I think that over the long term, this ends up hamstringing U.S. policy
Some of the ones I already listed earlier, so I won’t go into them. But there are additional ways that they’re interlinked. For example, the North Korean forced laborers abroad provide millions of dollars in revenue, allegedly, for the regime.
That can feed into their nuclear and missile program. And so, again, human rights issues are interlinked and overlapping with these national security concerns so I think there’s a need to press, obviously.
And then I think, perhaps another line of defense would be to say it hasn’t been tried before. Pressing really hard on human rights issues hasn’t been tried before, and we’re not making progress with the strategies that we’re using right now.
My final line would be that it’s U.S. law for us to hold North Korea accountable for human rights issues. It’s also U.S. law for us to be providing support to North Koreans, whether they’re refugees or those inside the country by improving information access. The North Korean Human Rights Act created grants that were supposed to be given to companies, or NGOs, or civil society organizations to think about creative new technology ways to expand the space for information in North Korea.
We have to continue to do those types of activities. And so I think that there’s a lot of reasons, both strategically, but also legally, that should cause U.S. negotiators and the Trump administration to prioritize human rights.
NK News: What about the current situation? Because right now, summit diplomacy seems to be waning in some sense.
Olivia Enos: I hesitate to say that there’s never a bad time to raise human rights issues, but I think there’s never a bad time to raise human rights issues. I think that it would have been better to raise them in Singapore. It would have been better to raise them in Hanoi.
A consistent line should also be maintained. The speech that President Trump gave at the South Korean National Assembly shortly after Otto Warmbier’s death was incredibly powerful – probably one of the most specific speeches we’ve ever had, where a sitting U.S. President was talking about human rights issues in North Korea. And then all of it went out the window.
I would just encourage the administration that it’s not too late. Whether they get a second term or not, they still have the remainder of this term where they can make good on promises to the North Korean people who cannot speak for themselves.
No one was representing the North Korean people and their desires and their rights that are being violated by the Kim regime on a daily basis.
NK News: Going forward, how should this intersection between national security and human rights in North Korea be worked into negotiations?
Olivia Enos: As I mentioned before, I think there are a couple of discrete asks that can be made. One, that there would be greater access granted to those political prison camps by the UN agencies and otherwise. Two, that there would be the release of women and children and otherwise. Three, that we would use more of the sanctions tools that we have at our disposal to target other individuals and entities who are responsible for undermining human rights.
We have those authorities both in North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, but also through Global Magnitsky Sanctions, which enable Treasury to target individuals on human rights and corruption grounds.
We also have the ability to use tools that Commerce has in order to target any goods that we believe were produced by North Korean forced labor. There’s a law called Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act that makes it so that all goods produced with North Korean labor or by the North Korean forced laborers abroad is considered forced labor and therefore not allowed to be imported into the U.S. We can be much more vigilant in how we stop those imports at the border, but also how we punish companies that are continuing to employ these forced laborers.
NK News: The North Korean regime maintains power, to some extent, through fear and violence. Will they ever give this up? If not, what should we do?
Olivia Enos: The U.S., at least on paper, does not have a stated policy of regime change. But if there is in fact correlation between the increase in sanctions and growth in the informal economy, this creates quite a lot of opportunities for U.S. policymakers to think about creative ways to enter into those markets and to encourage the growth — not because the markets will automatically lead to regime change, but because openings in the economy lead to greater access to goods and greater access to information.
This gives the North Korean people the ability to decide for themselves: what they want their future to be, whether that is fleeing the regime and trying to create change from outside of North Korea, or trying to facilitate change from within. I think no one can deny the fact that the growth in the informal economy has definitely led to greater empowerment of the North Korean people to make decisions for themselves.
I think that the informal economy offers a lot of possibilities for the North Korean people. And it’s something that the U.S. government should be actively encouraging the growth of.
I think regime change won’t ever be a stated policy and it probably should not be, but I think that there is nothing wrong with U.S. encouraging civil society growth, whether it’s in North Korea or elsewhere. And I think that it’s ultimately always up to the people of an individual country as to whether or not they want change.
Olivia Enos is a senior policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, where she focuses on human rights issues in Asia, ranging from functional issues such as religious freedom, refugee issues, and human trafficking, to more regionally-focused topics like negotiations and diplomacy in North Korea.
Edited by Oliver Hotham and James Fretwell