What began with mutual cooperation at the Olympics has blossomed rapidly into apparently serious peace talks on the Korean peninsula. The symbolic images of Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In shaking hands and smiling is in itself enough to convince casual observers that we’re seeing real, substantive progress.
It started with a speech from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on New Year’s Day, in which Kim said he was open to North Korean athletes participating in the February Winter Olympics in South Korea. Not only did they participate, but athletes from the two Koreas even competed as one team under a united Korean flag.
In turn, this led to the highest-level peace talks to date between the two Koreas, with Kim Jong Un becoming the first North Korean leader to travel to South Korea itself. The two leaders have agreed on a recently unthinkable declaration of “a new era of peace.”
Kim Jong Un, in his first foreign meeting since taking power in 2011, then met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in another groundbreaking development. Kim said he was open to the prospect of denuclearization, and North Korean state media said the Chinese president had in turn accepted an invitation to Pyongyang.
If all that weren’t enough, there has been much discussion of a potential meeting between Kim and Trump slated for May.
It’s a lot of progress in just a few months. There’s no doubt that these all represent historical developments that are worth celebrating. Last year, as nuclear threats from both sides escalated in both scale and tone, these events would have been nothing short of impossible to imagine. However, without minimizing the paradigm-shifting potential of Kim’s new diplomacy, it’s important to not lose sight of the bigger picture. Namely, two key points. For one, peace talks on the Korean peninsula have raised the world’s hopes in the past, and dashed them just as quickly, as Nicholas Kristof pointed out in his New York Times column this week. Secondly, North Korea is still a brutal dictatorship, and the world’s desire for regional stability should not wholly eclipse human rights concerns for the North Korean population.
In 1991, the two nations pledged to establish a “peace regime” with many similarities to the new agreement. Within just two years, those efforts fell apart in the face of the North’s continued nuclear efforts.
In 2000, similar hype surrounded that year’s meeting between Kim Jong Il and Kim Dae-jung. That meeting even yielded plans for a joint industrial park project in Kaesong, as well as efforts to allow South Koreans to visit North Korea, and to unite families on each side. Kim Dae-jung gave the north $8 billion in economic assistance between 1998 and 2008. Ultimately, these efforts failed to address human rights violations in North Korea or to slow the nation’s nuclear program.
In 2007, another attempt at peace began with a summit and ended when a new conservative government came into power in South Korea.
An easing of sanctions, a departure of US troops from South Korea, and even suggestions from geologists that the mountain above North Korea’s main nuclear test site may have collapsed during a test last year, all paint a picture of Kim’s potential ulterior motives. The nation established itself as a nuclear power in the eyes of the world, and now Kim is pushing for legitimacy. If it really leads to peace, then it may be for the greater good. But the world should be careful not to cater to the short-term interests of a nation with such a terrible track record.
This also brings us to the other reason to proceed with caution in accepting North Korea’s shift. While Kim may be showing gestures of goodwill to his long-time enemies in South Korea, there has been very little discussion of human rights for North Korean citizens.
Up to 130,000 North Koreans are living in prison camps, often dying from malnutrition and 20-hour workdays in mines. Reports of torture and rape are common. According to Human Rights Watch, all basic civil and political liberties are restricted for North Koreans, such as “freedom of expression, religion and conscience, assembly and association.” With no independent judiciary, North Koreans and their families face punishment and discrimination based on their perceived political loyalty.
According to a statement in response to the Korean summit from Arnold Fang, East Asia researcher for Amnesty International:
“The declaration should be viewed with cautious optimism, but the near-total absence of human rights from today’s agenda was a missed opportunity. These are unprecedented talks but governments must not shy away from raising the dire human rights situation in North Korea directly with Kim Jong-un and his government. It is imperative that human rights are not sidelined in any future talks, as their protection is intrinsically linked to peace and security.”
Trump has a record of taking the stance that it isn’t up to the US to police human rights around the world (although recent actions in Syria would seem to contradict this). But in treating a regime as abusive as North Korea’s as legitimate, it’s important to avoid turning a blind eye to those violations. While stepping back from the brink of nuclear war should indeed by the highest priority, it’s vital to make sure human rights are part of the discussion – and so far they have been conspicuously absent.
With these unresolved concerns, along with the Kim family’s unreliable history, a grain of salt should accompany the euphoria and optimism the peace talks have elicited so far.