Tensions are high on the Korean peninsula as North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un threatens retaliation after the international community imposed heightened sanctions for Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests earlier this year. Now, Kim Jong-Un is warning of another impending test, this time of a nuclear warhead he claims is small enough to fit on a ballistic missile.
If a test is carried out, North Korea will likely face even greater international pressure. Even after incurring sanctions from the United States, China, Japan, and the United Nations, and the closing of the Kaesong Industrial Complex by South Korea last month, there is still more that can and must be done; especially as it relates to addressing North Korea’s continued human rights abuse.
February 2016 marked the two year anniversary of the release of the United Nations seminal Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on human rights in North Korea. The report found sufficient evidence that North Korea was guilty of crimes against humanity. Arguably, North Korea’s most unconscionable offense is its extrajudicial imprisonment of between 70,000 and 120,000 individuals in political prison camps.
Strategies toward North Korea must address the interconnectedness of North Korea’s weapons program and the human rights abuse it commits against its people. A recent report issued by The Heritage Foundation noted that the North Korean government could have fed its people, but instead it spent an estimated $1.3 billion on its missile program in 2012 alone. The United Nations World Food Program only requested $111 million in contributions to feed the North Korean populace. Yet North Korea continues to use the resources it should have been using to feed its people to fuel its weapons programs, among other frivolous expenditures. Apart from the systematic persecution of its people, North Korea might not be able to fund its weapons program.
The Heritage Foundation report found that many of the same strategic security tools used to target North Korea’s nuclear program can be similarly applied to thwart human rights abuses. For example, the United States has developed substantial military contingency plans in the event of a North Korean collapse, but complementary humanitarian assistance planning lags behind.
The U.S. has also recently passed heightened sanctions against North Korea, some of which incorporate measures to directly target North Korea for its human rights abuses. However, there is much more that can be done, including naming Kim Jong-Un and other known top officials in the North Korean government for their involvement in crimes against humanity. To date, the Obama Administration has not sanctioned a single North Korean entity for human rights violations. Targeting known human rights abusers could be done through the use of a number of regulatory tools based in U.S. Department of the Treasury, including placing individuals on the Specially Designated Nationals List or labeling North Korea a primary money laundering concern.
Rather than placing human rights advocacy in a separate track from national security concerns, U.S. policy should integrate the two; recognizing that these challenges are often interrelated. Ahead of yet another nuclear test from North Korea it is essential that the U.S. evaluate all the tools in the proverbial toolbox, including those that advance liberty and freedom in the DPRK.
Olivia Enos is the Research Associate in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation. She is also co-founder of the Council on Asian Affairs, a group for young Asia policy professionals in Washington, DC and is currently pursuing her Master’s in Asian Studies at Georgetown University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Hyeon-seo Lee