Posted by CanKor Brain Trust Member Paul Evans:
It may appear churlish to offer a dissenting view of David Hawk’s informed and thoughtful report, “Pursuing Peace While Advancing Rights: The Untried Approach to North Korea,” that is featured in CanKor Report #325 and on this blog. I share his sense of outrage at the state of human rights in North Korea and his commitment to encouraging positive change. I agree that North Korean violence against migrant women and the existence of prison camps (“managed places”) are pivotal issues that should not be ignored. It indeed seems almost certain that full normalization of relations with North Korea by the United States and many other countries (Canada included) will depend upon improvements in human rights in that country. And it is difficult to disagree with his general comment that there has been very little progress in advancing either nuclear and missile disarmament or human rights in the past seventeen years.
But the report makes four mistakes that undermine its prescriptions.
First, it is reasonable to argue that issues of human rights and good governance will emerge organically and inevitably if and as the 6-Party Talks move forward, especially in the working groups. But simultaneous negotiations on three fronts (denuclearization, missile delivery systems, human rights) is a non-starter. The allure of the Helsinki process is enduring but misplaced in North Korea and the Asian context. The current approach of prioritizing the nuclear issue and addressing economic and political change at a later stage remains sound.
Second, the 6PTs are not the only channel for engagement with North Korea. Prioritizing the nuclear issue in the 6PTs does not mean that governments, international institutions or civil societies need to be deaf, dumb and blind on human rights matters. Countries with diplomatic relations and other channels of communication should continue to use them. And non-governmental actors can continue the relentless pressure, recognizing that the scope for influence and immediate improvement are minimal. A multi-tiered engagement process demands prudence, not abnegation. The fact that the Conservative government in Canada, in response to bad North Korean behaviour, has jettisoned even its modest means for direct communication with Pyongyang made possible by diplomatic relations is a cautionary tale rather than a model to be emulated.
Third, the ground is shifting under the human rights regime that only a short time ago appeared universal and compelling. Chinese views and Chinese power need to be factored more heavily into the discussion. Another report awaits to be written on the lessons to be applied to North Korea about how external pressure and assistance in the Chinese case can in some instances make a modest and long-term contribution to advancing human rights. Even more importantly, in an era of dramatic rise in China power, China is not just a frequent protector of North Korea, partially insulating it from international criticism and pressure, but China is constructing rules, norms, and practices that diverge substantially from the human right rights regimes that the report treats as universal. There is much about North Korea that Chinese leaders dislike, but these same Chinese leaders are unlikely to push an agenda of legal much less political reform in North Korea before economic reform and opening begins to take root. As noted in the case of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Chinese (and several of their neighbours) are marching with considerable confidence and success to their own drummer on these matters. Chinese power is rising in the immediate neighborhood and in global institutions.
Finally, the prospects for even limited improvement on human rights issues in North Korea are dim. The report does not do justice to the arguments that come from South Korea and elsewhere that the preconditions for a genuine commitment to human rights measured in either Western or even Chinese terms are almost entirely absent. The character of the regime, the closed nature of the society, and the absence of a significant professional much less middle class, make for a rock that is about as barren as any on earth.
The wonderful quote from President Obama underlines the need for painstaking diplomacy to accompany exhortation and sanctions. The other ingredients are patience and persistence. For the moment, there is no sensible alternative to prioritizing the nuclear issue as the initial objective of the 6PTs and using international institutions, bilateral governmental channels, and civil society instruments as the means for exerting pressure for change. The results they will produce, at least in the short term, are extremely modest.
The great brick wall that separates North Korea from a dynamic region and the broader world will not come down easily. If we reject, as the report does, using military force to knock the wall down, the only realistic option is encouraging new streams of market-based development that will erode its base and encouraging governments and non-governmental actors to use their finger nails to scratch at the bricks and create the dust in which the spores of a civil society can germinate.