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Yoon's Approach to North Korea Lacks Initial Strategy on Human Rights


South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol delivers a speech during a news conference to mark his first 100 days in office at the presidential office in Seoul, South Korea, Aug. 17, 2022.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s “audacious initiative” needs to include the goal of improving human rights in North Korea, not necessarily in the beginning of potential negotiations but as the plan is put in place, according to experts, if Pyongyang is to agree give up its nuclear weapons.

Dubbed as a "comprehensive" roadmap for achieving peace on the Korean Peninsula as well as normalizing inter-Korean ties by his senior officials, the "audacious" plan includes a slew of economic incentives in exchange for North Korea's denuclearization.

President Yoon announced the plan in his Liberation Day speech delivered in front of his presidential office in Seoul on Aug. 15, marking Korea's independence from Japanese colonization, which lasted from 1910-45. Details of the plan were unveiled during a press briefing later in the day.

Kim Tae-hyo, the first deputy director of the National Security Office, said incentives such as modernizing airports and hospitals, boosting agricultural production, and fostering investment and trade would be matched by steps North Korea agrees to take to denuclearize in a phasing-out deal.

Although Yoon said the plan will improve "people's livelihood," he made no direct mention of addressing North Korea's human rights violations, something experts suggested would be phased in if negotiations come to pass.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry told VOA's Korean Service on Thursday that the Yoon government views North Korea's human rights violations as a "serious" issue and seeks to "improve human rights and humanitarian conditions" in the country with "active cooperation from the international community."

A spokesperson for the State Department told VOA's Korean Service on Thursday that Washington supports Seoul's diplomacy with Pyongyang with the goal of denuclearization. The spokesperson continued, "We remain concerned about the human rights situation in [North Korea], and the United States is committed to placing human rights at the center of our foreign policy."

VOA's Korean Service contacted the North Korean mission to the U.N. asking whether it has any plans to return to dialogue despite Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of regime leader Kim Jong Un, rejecting the offer as "absurd" on Aug. 19, but did not get a reply.

Human rights 'disincentive'

Robert King, former U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights during the Obama administration, said, "The failure to mention 'human rights' explicitly is not a problem" as negotiation begins because "that term provokes negative reaction from North Korea," but needs to be brought up during the process to normalize relations.

Robert Rapson, who served as deputy chief of mission and chargé d'affaires at the U.S. embassy in Seoul from 2018-21, echoed King.

"Given that the Yoon administration's early intent has been to incentivize the North Korean regime to respond positively to the 'audacious initiative,' inclusion of human rights up front would undoubtedly be a very clear disincentive to Pyongyang," said Rapson.

"At some point in the 'audacious initiative' discussions … human rights concerns and issues must be raised with the North Korean regime," he continued.

North Korea is known for controlling its people with torture, forced labor and extrajudicial killings and denying them basic rights such as freedom to assemble, speak and relocate.

Seoul officials held a meeting on North Korean human rights for the first time in two years on Thursday, according to the Unification Ministry. The previous government of Moon Jae-in sidelined human rights while prioritizing inter-Korean reconciliation.

Lee Shin-hwa, the newly appointed human rights envoy for North Korea, a position that went unfilled during the Moon administration, was among those who attended the interagency meeting of the Council on North Korean Human Rights.

Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council of Foreign Relations, said Yoon has a human rights plan for North Korea as evidenced by Lee's appointment. He added, "Meaningful changes will inevitably come from within North Korea and will in all likelihood be essential if the two sides are to make significant progress."

Ken Gause, director for the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, also said Seoul made a "strategic decision" not to include human rights in the plan, which would improve "organically as two Koreas engage." Gause continued, "The less said about human rights in terms of offers to North Korea, probably the better."

Eventual integration of human rights

Roberta Cohen, who served as the deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights during the Carter administration, said implementing the plan would inevitably require integrating human rights into its framework because "there can be no truly effective normalization without attention to human rights."

Economic investment, for example, "cannot effectively proceed without attention to labor standards, protection of property, and observance of the rule of law," Cohen said.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, said, the gaps in economic development between the two Koreas are "dwarfed by the massive differences" in human rights.

He continued, "Without seriously reducing these gaps by making major improvements in respect for human rights in North Korea, it will simply not be possible for normalization of relations." For that reason, it would be a "major error" if Yoon's plan excludes human rights, Robertson said.

Any prospect for the success of Yoon's "audacious" plan, however, rests on Pyongyang's engagement and expressed commitment toward denuclearization, both of which are highly unlikely, according to Evans Revere, a former State Department official with extensive experience negotiating with North Korea.

"Pyongyang has no intention of working with the new government in Seoul, no matter what the new [Yoon] government offers," said Revere. "North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons" that the regime believes "guarantee its existence."

According to Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency, Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of regime leader Kim Jong Un, responded to Yoon's plan on Aug. 19, saying, "To think that the plan to barter ‘economic cooperation’ for our honor, nukes, is the great dream, hope, and plan of Yoon, we came to realize that he is really simple and still childish. ... No one barters its destiny for corn cake."

Another hurdle facing the plan are U.N. sanctions that prohibit joint ventures and restrict trade with Pyongyang. Yoon needs U.S. support to get them lifted, according to Joseph DeTrani, former special envoy for the six-nation denuclearization talks with North Korea.

South Korean Second Vice Foreign Minister Lee Do-hoon was in New York City from Aug. 21-25 to discuss Yoon's plan with U.N. officials, including U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield and U.N. disarmament chief Izumi Nakamitsu, according to the Foreign Ministry.

DeTrani said Lee probably discussed with the U.S. "some form of selective lifting of sanctions if/when North Korea returns to negotiations."

Reporter Jiha Ham contributed to this report, which originated with the VOA Korean Service.

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