April 7, 2021 | Policy Brief

North Korean Human Rights Should Unite the U.S.-ROK Alliance, Not Divide It

April 7, 2021 | Policy Brief

North Korean Human Rights Should Unite the U.S.-ROK Alliance, Not Divide It

The U.S. State Department last week released its annual report on human rights abuses throughout the world, which included comprehensive detail regarding North Korea’s ongoing human rights violations against its own people. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has avoided confronting Pyongyang over its human rights abuses, fearing that such a dispute would undermine efforts for inter-Korean engagement, yet comments on the report from the South Korean Ministry of Unification suggest there may be a chance for U.S.-South Korean cooperation on this issue.

The ministry stated that Seoul “recognizes the importance of enhancing North Korean people’s right to know and information flows to the North.” This appears to contradict a controversial new South Korean law that imposes harsh penalties on individuals and organizations sending anti-regime propaganda leaflets into North Korea to counter Pyongyang’s total control over information and censorship.

Members of Congress, the United Nations, and human rights organizations have criticized the South Korean law for accommodating the Kim Jong Un regime’s demands to end the leaflet campaigns. In response, former South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha claimed the law would protect South Koreans living near the border from North Korean retaliatory aggression.

The Moon administration has a troubling history of suppressing North Korean human rights activism in order to build better relations with Pyongyang. For example, Moon cut more than 90 percent of Seoul’s funding for the North Korean Human Rights Foundation, which supports programs that aid the resettlement of North Korean escapees and other advocacy campaigns. The South Korean military also removed loudspeakers at the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, that played anti-North Korea propaganda messages. Unfortunately for Seoul, the North Korean government has yet to reciprocate these goodwill gestures.

Still, it is encouraging that South Korea’s Ministry of Unification acknowledged and agreed with U.S. State Department remarks supporting the free flow of information. The Biden administration should therefore encourage Seoul to be true to its words by enacting policies and programs supporting the free flow of information inside North Korea.

Information and influence activities (IIA) can impose a significant cost on the Kim regime while increasing the alliance’s diplomatic leverage. Pyongyang’s public executions and mass arrests of North Koreans for watching foreign media underscore the regime’s concerns regarding IIA campaigns’ impact on the populace.

A successful IIA campaign would help cultivate a North Korean populace that is not satisfied with the regime’s strategic trajectory and force the Kim regime to consider a new strategic approach that is not reliant upon nuclear weapons and missiles.

To strengthen their IIA efforts, the U.S. and South Korean governments should develop more robust organizational infrastructure to coordinate and conduct IIA. Currently, the alliance’s IIA efforts are decentralized, as numerous public and private sector organizations conduct activities ranging from live radio broadcasts to smuggling into North Korea foreign movies and TV shows on SD cards, USB flash drives, and DVDs.

This organization should draw from the knowledge of North Korean escapees. Such insights would be instrumental to crafting and disseminating refined and unified messages to engage, educate, and inform the North Korean populace.

The Biden administration should remind Seoul that its past concessions on human rights not only have failed to strengthen inter-Korean cooperation, but have also forsaken the North Korean people’s suffering. Pyongyang’s lack of reciprocity suggests a need for a new approach that emphasizes human rights. While raising these issues with Pyongyang will likely increase tensions, Washington must reassure Seoul that this risk is necessary to change Pyongyang’s strategic calculus and make future negotiations more productive.

Mathew Ha is a research analyst focused on North Korea at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Mathew and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Mathew on Twitter @MatJunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Military and Political Power North Korea U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy