Can the Korean Peninsula ‘Walk Upright’?

On June 14th, during his state visit to Sweden, South Korean President Moon Jae-in addressed the Riksdag and lauded the Swedish government for championing initiatives that promote international peace, maintaining neutrality on the Korean peninsula at a time when historical grievances from the Great War continue to haunt the hearts and minds of the Korean people. Towards the end of his remarks, Moon recited a verse from one of Sweden’s critically acclaimed poets, Tomas Gösta Tranströmer: “It’s been a hard winter, but summer is here, and the fields want us to walk upright.”

Just a few weeks after Moon’s state visit to Sweden, President Trump once again displayed his “predictably unpredictable” tendencies by inviting Kim Jong-Un to meet with him via Twitter at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Panmunjom, ultimately becoming the first sitting U.S. president to set foot onto North Korea soil. During this impromptu meeting, Trump and Kim reaffirmed their commitment to resume high-level negotiations, and Trump even hinted at the possibility of opening a U.S. liaison office in Pyongyang. To those who remain confident in Trump’s diplomatic agenda with North Korea, this could possibly suggest that Tranströmer’s verse may be one step closer to becoming realized, but truthfully, it is premature to make such assumptions especially when the human rights crisis that has been perpetuated by the North Korean regime has not been adequately addressed in these talks.

From its establishment in 1948, North Korea has never espoused any sort of democratic values. More importantly, their population has been subjected to abhorrent human rights violations beyond our comprehension. The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea’s report published in December 2018, entitled “Denied From the Start: Human Rights at the Local Level in North Korea” has been able to verify that the Hermit Kingdom has violated at least 17 articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and at least 11 articles of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Additionally, a Human Rights Watch’s report decries the regime’s use of public execution as a scare tactic to prevent North Korean citizens from making any attempts to communicate with the outside world and countless other egregious human rights abuses. Furthermore, with its implementation of heavy surveillance along its border, North Korea has not signaled any sort of readiness to allow its people to gain exposure to non-North Korean entities and ideas, thereby stymieing its own transformation into a nation capable of both recognizing and upholding international norms.

Despite its reputation as one of the world’s most reclusive nations, North Korea has been quite transparent about two things: they have a great amount of disdain for the presence of international personnel inside their borders, and they have maintained an uncooperative attitude towards complying with international treaties. While the DPRK took concrete steps by signing the Agreed Framework in October 1994, Pyongyang wrote a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in December 2002, indicating that the IAEA inspectors had to terminate their mission to inspect North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. One month later, North Korea decided to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and recommenced its nuclear proliferation activities—they administered their first nuclear test underground in October 2006.

In more recent times, North Korea imprisoned Otto Warmbier, an American college student, for ripping a propaganda poster at the Yanggakdo International Hotel in January 2016. While the U.S. successfully negotiated his release in June 2017, his poor medical condition lead to his death only two days after returning to the U.S. Lastly, the regime detained Alek Sigley, an Australian graduate student studying Korean Literature at Kim Il-Sung University, just a few days before Trump and Kim’s “meeting” at the DMZ. The regime deemed Sigley’s activities of uploading pictures from Pyongyang and writing op-eds for news media outlets such as NK News as “anti-state,” and CEO of NK News, Chad O’Carroll condemned the government’s reasoning behind his detention. The Australian government requested Sweden to act as an intermediary since Sweden serves as Australia’s protecting power as it does for the U.S. On July 4th, Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Margot Wallström, posted the following tweet:

Given these factors, if Tranströmer’s words are to ever become more than President Moon’s vision for the Korean Peninsula, denuclearization cannot be the only priority. Human rights must also take precedence in future negotiations that North Korea carries out with any member of the international community, state or non-state actor. That being said, human rights issues can only be pressed in any diplomatic dialogue with North Korea if the regime accepts the reality that it must undergo a process of complete and irreversible dismantlement of their isolation, but this would most likely mean that the regime would no longer be able to justify its reign in power. As the late Father Theodore Hesburgh, a beloved president of the University of Notre Dame, once wrote in The Humane Imperative in 1974: “the problem of human rights is so universal that it transcends all other problems that face humanity.”