U.S. Strategy to Address the Human Rights Situation in North Korea

Scott Busby
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Institute for Corean-American Studies Fall Symposium at the Heritage Foundation
Washington, DC
October 25, 2016

As prepared for delivery

Thank you everyone for being here today and I thank ICAS for inviting me to speak about the very important issue of the deplorable human rights situations in North Korea and our strategy for addressing it. The United States has been working hard to respond to North Korea's illicit nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, both of which pose an unacceptable threat to our security and the international non-proliferation regime. Yet even as we insist on consequences, including strong sanctions, in response to North Korea's nuclear violations, we are also fully committed to an effective response to North Korea's atrocious human rights record. This year marks a milestone for U.S. policy regarding human rights in North Korea. We took a series of big steps, and for the first time, imposed sanctions on North Korean officials, including Kim Jong Un, responsible for or associated with human rights abuses.

As most of you are aware, the DPRK is one of the world’s most repressive countries. It is near the bottom of virtually every report that ranks human rights conditions in all countries around the world. Under its leader Kim Jong Un, the totalitarian regime dominates every aspect of its citizens’ lives and restricts the exercise of fundamental freedoms, including freedoms of expression, religion, peaceful assembly, association, and movement. North Korean authorities commit egregious human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, enslavement, torture, and prolonged arbitrary detention. Numerous defector accounts and NGO reports have suggested that the regime has locked away between 80,000 to 120,000 citizens in its vast network of political prisons under unfair procedures. Many of these inmates are reportedly subject to severe beatings, electric shock, prolonged periods of exposure to the elements, humiliations such as public nakedness, confinements for up to several weeks in cells that are so small that they are unable to stand upright or lie down, being forced to kneel or sit immobilized for long periods, being hung by the wrists or forced to stand up and sit down to the point of collapse, and mothers are being forced to watch the infanticide of their newborn infants. Women are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault, forced abortions, and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence. Defectors reported that many prisoners died while detained in these facilities as a result of such cruel torture. These reports are deeply disturbing, and we condemn the North Korean government for its use of fear and cruelty to control its people.

Two years ago in 2014, the UN Commission of Inquiry led by the Honorable Justice Michael Kirby from Australia, Sonja Biserko from Serbia, and the Honorable Marzuki Darusman from Indonesia, who served for several years as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on North Korean human rights, released a comprehensive report condemning the North Korean regime for its human rights record and for the atrocities committed against its people. The report unequivocally concluded that North Korea “does not have any parallel in the contemporary world” when it comes to human rights violations and defined the scope and severity of the problem as widespread and systematic, “pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the State.”

The release of the UN COI report has helped immensely to strengthen the case for others to support our efforts to increase international pressure on the DPRK to improve its human rights record. In particular, we have called upon the DPRK to take steps to immediately release all political prisoners, dismantle the political prison camps, and provide adequate fair trial protections.

Our policy is intended to increase pressure on the DPRK government to prioritize the lives of its people. We have made clear that our willingness to engage with the DPRK government depends, among other things, on whether it is willing to take concrete steps to address the serious, ongoing human rights violations in the country. And this includes the implementation of the UN COI report’s recommendations.

To that end, our strategy to promote human rights in North Korea is focused on three key objectives. First, we seek to increase international awareness of the dire human rights situation in the DPRK. Second, we are trying to do everything we can to increase access by the citizens of North Korea to information about life outside North Korea. And lastly, we seek to make clear to the North Korean leadership and those most responsible for serious human rights violations in North Korea that they will be held accountable if and when that becomes possible.

Let me begin by saying that our efforts to raise international awareness have focused on amplifying the voices of defectors by sharing their stories and experiences under the oppressive North Korean regime. We do this through a variety of partnerships with other governments, nongovernmental organizations, and news organizations. Just this past year, for instance, we hosted a number of side-events at the UN with like-minded governments that share our view on North Korea’s human rights record. These included an event last March at the UN Commission on the Status of Women that we co-hosted with four other governments and an event on the margins of the UN General Assembly High Level Meetings in September. We also participated in high-profile events hosted by civil society groups in both Washington and Seoul, and advocated for multilateral bodies, including the UN Security Council, to address the human rights situation in the DPRK. In addition, we also participated in numerous interviews with media outlets that broadcast into North Korea as well as to the region and internationally. We worked with the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia to report information into the DPRK on our recent sanctions designations of North Korean individuals associated with human rights abuses. We hope to inform average North Koreans through these broadcasts that we know about the vile acts being done by these perpetrators, that we absolutely do not condone such abuses, and that we intend to hold the responsible parties accountable. We will continue these efforts.

It is imperative that we engage closely with our like-minded partners in these efforts. Along those lines, we are in regular discussions with our partners to improve the coordination of our messages to magnify each other’s efforts. Our trilateral relationship with South Korea and Japan is stronger than ever. We are working closely with both governments to jointly appeal to other governments to support these efforts. We are also coordinating closely with and have co-hosted numerous events with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights which established a field office with staff in Seoul last July to track human rights violations in North Korea.

We also continue to cosponsor and lobby for the passage of strong annual resolutions at the Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly. In this regard, we are currently working closely with other governments to pass another strong resolution condemning the human rights situation in the DPRK at the upcoming UNGA Third Committee meeting.

We are also continuously engaging with numerous civil society groups and defector activists to shine a spotlight on North Korea’s horrific human rights violations. In addition to participating in civil society-hosted events, we consider their participation at our own events to be just as critical. For example, two defectors were able to meet with U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power before the UN Security Council discussed the human rights situation in the DPRK in March this year. Ambassador Power shared the defectors’ stories as a part of her statement at the council meeting, which helped to place a human face on the millions who suffer under the oppressive rule of the regime. In a trip to South Korea earlier this month, she met more defectors and listened to harrowing stories of young people who had escaped from North Korea just a few weeks before. Given the closed nature of the DPRK, supporting and investing in this community -- and making sure their stories are told -- is essential to documenting the human rights situation and increasing international pressure on the government.

The second part of our North Korean human rights strategy is to increase access to information for as many North Koreans as possible. We must do everything we can to facilitate the flow of information into and out of North Korea as well as among the North Koreans within the closed country. For nearly 70 years, the North Korean regime has taken extreme measures to exert complete control over access to information, denying its citizens knowledge of the existence of alternative ways of life in order to secure its survival. However, we saw that things started to change during the famine of the mid-1990s through the growth of informal markets, which brought in a surplus of consumer goods along with outside information from China and South Korea. We have seen indications that more and more North Koreans are being exposed to information from the outside through DVDs, MP3s, cell phones, and tablets. They are coming to see the living standards of other countries and are realizing that their counterparts in the free and democratic South Korea are faring far better than they are, contrary to the lies that they are being told by their own government. A chasm has been formed between the traditional state propaganda and people’s understanding of the world and it is getting harder for the government to hide the truth about the country’s relative poverty and the reasons for it.

Our goal here is to take advantage of cracks in the information blockade and help accelerate the bottom up trends already underway in North Korea that could lead to internal change. We want to ramp up our efforts in showing the average North Korean that the enjoyment of freedom of movement, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion is possible and commonplace around the world. In order to do this, we are expanding our support for programs that increase access to information inside the country. We have partnered with defector-led organizations to push information into North Korea through networks built around the information markets. Those same networks are able to bring information out of the country, creating a feedback loop that allows activists to better curate the content of information which they then can push back into the country. This subsequently increases the demand and expands the reach of these information programs. These networks are essential in that they also allow international organizations to better document the situation in the DPRK by bringing news out of the closed country. They also provide average North Koreans with information about what is happening in neighboring provinces and cities to which they otherwise wouldn’t be exposed.

In this effort, we continue to partner with broadcasters, including the Broadcasting Board of Governors here in the U.S. and independent nongovernmental broadcasters in South Korea to effectively tailor our messaging content for North Koreans. This includes basic entertainment like soap operas and movies – everyday material that average people will be inclined to watch – as well as news and documentaries. We believe that the more information gets inside, the more people’s appetite for knowledge increases.

We are seeing that our efforts to increase the flow of information are effective in exposing the North Koreans to alternative ways of life and changing their perceptions of the outside world. Recent defector surveys demonstrate that before leaving the DPRK, more than 92 percent of survey respondents had watched a foreign DVD and more than 70 percent had access to a mobile phone. Nearly 30 percent have listened to a foreign radio broadcast.

Defectors continue to be an important source of information about conditions inside the country, as well as demonstrating the illegitimacy of the regime, and we continue to work closely with them. Last year, 1,276 North Korean defectors resettled in South Korea, a decline of 8 percent from the previous, which the media and NGOs attributed to the DPRK government ramping up efforts to strengthen their border controls. While the overall number of defectors has been decreasing, however, we have seen an increase in the number of senior DPRK officials who have defected.

The final part of our strategy is accountability. We continue to seek opportunities to promote accountability and to send a strong signal to North Korean officials that their actions have consequences. As a key part of these efforts, we released a report on July 6, identifying eight entities and 15 North Korean officials, including Kim Jong Un, who we determined to be responsible for or associated with serious human rights abuses and censorship. In conjunction with that report, the Department of the Treasury added 11 of those individuals and five entities to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list. As I mentioned earlier, this marks the first time we specifically sanctioned North Korean officials for being responsible for or associated with human rights abuses. We believe this sends a strong signal condemning those abuses and our determination to see them stopped.

By taking these actions, we seek to warn the North Korean leadership and officials, particularly the mid-level officers including prison camp managers and guards, interrogators, and defector chasers, that their actions are not hidden. Our message has consistently sought to remind them that the world is watching, and some day they will be held to account for what they have done. In so doing, we hope to deter some of them from engaging in such abuses and encourage them to adopt practices that are more in line with international human rights standards.

We also continue to remain focused on maintaining pressure through the UN Security Council and partnering with the Seoul field office of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and other organizations to continue to build a credible body of information to support future accountability measures. Despite the notoriously opaque nature of the DPRK, we must continue our efforts to collect and evaluate any new information with the goal of bringing to light more individuals, at all levels, associated with serious human rights abuses.

Moving forward, we will need to use every opportunity to send a strong, clear message of resolve to push North Korea into taking concrete steps to address the core concerns of the international community on its human rights record. The United States will continue to let the North Korean regime know that it will be judged by its actions, not its words, and that any future relationship depends in part on the regime taking concrete steps to improve its human rights situation.

In this regard, we will continue to seek ways to coordinate closely with our allies and international partners to amplify our efforts in increasing pressure on the DPRK to address its deplorable human rights record. We will seek every opportunity to give a voice to the voiceless and remind the North Korean people that they are not alone and are not forgotten.

We have made some important progress in recent years, but we realize that much more remains to be done to effect change on the ground for North Koreans. We realize that this can only be done with the help of people like you. I commend our partners here today for your hard work in bringing attention to the plight of the North Koreans. It isn’t easy, but I want to encourage you to remain vigilant and steadfast in this very important fight to bring freedom to the North Korean people. We must continue to work hard to galvanize support from others in this effort, particularly in the Korean-American community, and encourage active involvement at all levels to bring attention and awareness to the North Koreans suffering under the oppressive regime.

Our long-term security and prosperity depends on promoting the values of freedom and democracy around the world, including in the DPRK, and with your help, we hope that North Korea chooses to stand on the right side of history by taking meaningful steps, among other things, towards respecting human rights. Thank you, and I’d be happy to take your questions and comments.