In 2002, President George W. Bush marked Kim Jong Il's regime as evil, the Congress passed the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004, and the State Department's first special envoy on this matter, Jay Lefkowitz, was appointed in 2005. But the circle of awareness and debate has remained limited, with political and religious conservatives yelling the loudest about how the U.S. should counter the abuses in North Korea.
U.S. approaches have been ineffective because goals other than improving North Korean lives have been promoted. The 2004 Act, its more hostile predecessor, the North Korea Freedom Act of 2003, and the Bush administration's hawkish stance toward Pyongyang generated the view that human rights was just a foil for regime change. Some members of Congress also used the North Korean human rights issue not as an end in itself, but as a way to attack China on human rights.
It adds to cynicism that North Korea is really a means to get at China and sends conflicting messages to Beijing, whose help is needed on Pyongyang's nuclear and human rights problems. Given the political parameters of the six-party talks, progress on human rights is not possible: China and Russia face their own problems on human rights and have no interest in pursuing a human rights agenda with the United States or North Korea; South Korea has gone out of its way to keep the human rights issue off the inter-Korean radar as part of its engagement strategy. That leaves Japan as the only country willing to back the U.S., but Japan is badly positioned to have credibility or clout on the issue of human rights in Asia, given its inability to face up to its wartime violations. And its human rights agenda regarding North Korea is too narrow to be compatible with that of the United States.
Those of us who genuinely care about North Korean human rights need to put North Korean lives first.
[Excerpt of an article by Katharine H.S. Moon, an associate fellow at the Asia Society and professor in political science at Wellesley College]