WASHINGTON — Plans for peace talks between the leaders of North and South Korea fail to solve all conflicts there, some experts say, as they work toward a settlement that ignores one of the most critical problems plaguing the reunification of the Korean Peninsula: Kim’s regime history of human rights abuses.
The Panmunjom Declaration, which North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in signed in April, makes no mention of the systematic use of starvation, torture and baseless incarceration that human rights groups like Freedom House and other critics frequently attribute to Pyongyang.
And while the agreement was designed only to pursue a formal end to the Korean War and denuclearize the peninsula, some of those familiar with the security situation there believe a lasting peace hinges on accounting for North Korea’s domestic abuses.
“Having talks to end the war and leaving the people of North Korea up to Kim Jong Un’s dictatorship is saying we don’t care about the people – a ‘peace talk’ that does not achieve peace,” Kang Chol-hwan, a North Korean defector now living in South Korea, said in a phone interview, speaking in Korean.
Kang and his family spent 10 years imprisoned inside the Yodok concentration camp after his grandfather was accused of treason. He says he went to the camp as a 9-year-old and suffered starvation, torture and the threat of execution.
Defectors who escaped Yodok, 68 miles northeast of the country’s capital, have recounted that there are hundreds of people inside the camp who are forced to perform harsh labor. They were accused of acts of so-called political treason such as studying overseas or criticizing the North Korean government. North Korea has repeatedly denied the existence of the camp while satellite imagery released by Amnesty International in 2016 show the camp is still functioning.
“I lived through a painful time in the prison camp and saw people die of starvation and abuse,” Kang says. “Prison camps is the most serious issue in North Korea that the agreement failed to address.”
But proponents of diplomatic summits to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula say continuing friendly engagement with North Korea is the answer to improving human rights conditions for its people.
“They say peace and engagement is bad for human rights, so the alternate is war and regime change and that’s good for human rights?” says Christine Ahn, the founder of Women Cross DMZ, an advocacy organization designed to mobilize women with the goal of ending the Korean War. “We just know that improving engagement and diplomacy – that’s what’s going to lead to the improvement of human rights.”
Some human rights activists counter that the real conflict, as opposed to the Korean War, is the ongoing war between the North Korean regime and its people.
“[That war] is causing an extreme amount of suffering and deaths,” says Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer at the Human Rights Foundation.
The April declaration, in which the two countries agreed to “cease all hostile acts” against each other, has adversely affected North Koreans’ lives, including South Korea’s dismantling speakers on the Demilitarized Zone that it normally uses to send news of the outside world to North Koreans, according to Gladstein.
Even if North Korea were to denuclearize and become more engaged with the rest of the world, experts say that may not guarantee an improvement in the lives of North Koreans.
“Along with denuclearization would be a massive expansion of economic opportunities for North Korea…but the kind of capitalism that the North Korean leader likes is the kind that rewards and reinforces the vertical hierarchy that has him on the top,” says Scott Snyder, a Korea-U.S. policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Some experts warn that the declaration between North and South Korea may end up much like previous South Korean “sunshine policy” efforts. In 2000, then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the policy, which enacted reconciliation with North Korea from a similar inter-Korean summit with the country’s leader at the time, Kim Jong Il.
North Korea never followed through on denuclearization and continued its provocative nuclear programs.
Following the April summit, the widow of Kim Dae-jung sent a congratulatory message, in which she said President Moon deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. Moon responded by saying that President Donald Trump deserves the prize, which Trump supporters have gladly acknowledged at his political rallies, chanting, “Nobel, Nobel, Nobel.”
“Sunshine policies have had no help for the North Korean people in the past and only benefited the leadership,” Kang says.
The upcoming summit between the U.S. and North Korea scheduled to take place in Singapore in June will only be meaningful if Trump pushes Kim to improve the treatment of his citizens and eradicate prison camps, Kang says. Kim on Tuesday threatened to cancel the summit with Trump after calling off talks with South Korea because of previously scheduled joint military exercise conducted by the South Korean and U.S. militaries known as Max Thunder.
But Gladstein believes such efforts on human rights will be unlikely.
“There’s nothing Trump and Moon would want more than to win a Nobel Peace Prize from all of this despite having no interest in promoting human rights,” he says.