North Korean Human Rights in the State of the Union
As PyeongChang welcomes the world for the 2018 Winter Games, international focus will be on the incredible athletes and the Olympic spirit they embody. Also worthy of attention are the national achievements of South Korea, not only as the host country, but as a globalized market economy that has become a technological powerhouse and thriving democracy in the three short decades since it hosted the Summer Games in 1988.
Inevitably, the Olympics also involve politics and diplomacy, as well as national security. South Korea’s complicated geopolitical map places it at the intersection of a rising China, revisionist Russia, resurgent Japan, and the US military presence in Asia. Especially as Seoul struggles to deal with its nuclear- and missile-testing neighbor to the north, one cannot blame the administration of Moon Jae-in for trying to bring about a “peace Olympics.” But in the process of engaging Pyongyang, the Moon administration has made all kinds of special allowances for North Korean participation in the Olympics, while putting aside the horrible state of North Korean human rights in order to prioritize inter-Korean dialogue.
US President Donald Trump provided a starkly contrasting approach when his January 30, 2018 State of the Union address shone light on North Korean human rights:
But no regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea. North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland. We are waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from happening. Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation. I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position. We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies.
The speech elaborated two poignant stories involving North Korea’s human rights record. The first involved the untimely death of an American college student:
Otto Warmbier was a hardworking student at the University of Virginia. On his way to study abroad in Asia, Otto joined a tour to North Korea. At its conclusion, this wonderful young man was arrested and charged with crimes against the state. After a shameful trial, the dictatorship sentenced Otto to 15 years of hard labor, before returning him to America last June — horribly injured and on the verge of death. He passed away just days after his return. Otto’s Parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, are with us tonight — along with Otto’s brother and sister, Austin and Greta. You are powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world, and your strength inspires us all.
In addition to the grieving American family, a North Korean escapee, now a human rights advocate in Seoul, was also an honored guest at the State of the Union. Trump shared the man’s story:
We are joined by one more witness to the ominous nature of this regime. His name is Mr. Ji Seong-ho. In 1996, Seong-ho was a starving boy in North Korea. One day, he tried to steal coal from a railroad car to barter for a few scraps of food. In the process, he passed out on the train tracks, exhausted from hunger. He woke up as a train ran over his limbs. He then endured multiple amputations without anything to dull the pain. His brother and sister gave what little food they had to help him recover and ate dirt themselves — permanently stunting their own growth. Later, he was tortured by North Korean authorities after returning from a brief visit to China. His tormentors wanted to know if he had met any Christians. He had — and he resolved to be free. Seong-ho traveled thousands of miles on crutches across China and Southeast Asia to freedom. Most of his family followed. His father was caught trying to escape, and was tortured to death. Today he lives in Seoul, where he rescues other defectors, and broadcasts into North Korea what the regime fears the most — the truth. Today he has a new leg, but Seong-ho, I understand you still keep those crutches as a reminder of how far you have come. Your great sacrifice is an inspiration to us all.
President Trump’s State of the Union address and President Moon’s overtures toward North Korea will be subjects of intense political debate over the coming weeks. But the personal stories above should remind us that just as freedom is not free, pressuring North Korea is not risk free, and engaging North Korea is not cost free.
The Trump administration has pursued a policy of “maximum pressure” against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, to the point of telegraphing military action against Pyongyang. This approach can claim the successes of motivating Beijing to tighten sanctions on North Korea and coercing the Kim regime into talks with Seoul. But it also carries risks, not only of uncontrolled military escalation, but also of fraying the US alliance with South Korea that is absolutely essential for redirecting North Korea, deterring it in the meantime, and defeating it if necessary.
The Olympics have South Korea in the driver’s seat, testing North Korean intentions for cooperation. But Pyongyang’s provocations are likely to continue soon after the games. Then South Korea’s coordinated diplomacy and military exercises with the United States will be needed to keep the North in check. To maintain that coordination, Seoul must not allow North Korea to drive a wedge between it and Washington.
Toward that end, the Moon government can productively respond to Trump’s speech by demonstrating that its approach toward Pyongyang is principled engagement, not appeasement. The financial and logistical costs of incorporating North Korean participation in the Olympics should be transparent to the South Korean taxpayer and adhere to United Nations Security Council Resolutions. While inter-Korean reconciliation is a worthy goal of sports diplomacy, such efforts should not legitimize a regime that threatens its neighbors with missiles and nuclear weapons and that continues to abuse and torture its own people.
Source: “President Donald J. Trump’s State of the Union Address,” January 30, 2018.