Press North Korea more on human rights, less on denuclearization says federal commission

shutterstock 1385497739 North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. | Alexander Khitrov/Shutterstock

A federal commission is calling on the U.S. to push for greater respect for human rights in North Korea, in exchange for a freeze on their nuclear program and not full denuclearization.

In a new report released on Wednesday, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) advocates that the U.S. take a new approach to working for the denuclearization of North Korea and a peace agreement.

While the U.S. has viewed human rights advocacy as a potential obstacle to denuclearization talks, pushing it to the side, it should instead view "security and human rights objectives as complementary rather than contradictory," USCIRF says.

A new policy based on the 1975 Helsinki Accords would link human rights to discussions on freezing North Korea's nuclear program, and not dismantling it entirely, USCIRF says.

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan, federal religious freedom commission that advises the administration on international religious freedom issues.

North Korea has one of the worst records in the world on respect for human rights and freedom of religion, USCIRF says. In its 2020 annual report, the commission noted that religious practice-outside of state-sanctioned houses of worship-can lead to arrest, torture, imprisonment, and execution.

In a 2014 report of a UN Commission of Inquiry, an estimated 80,000-120,000 prisoners of conscience were detained in prison camps. Detainees are subject to hard labor, malnutrition, and other bad conditions.

The Trump administration has spoken out about the human rights crisis in North Korea, but has not taken enough actions on it, USCIRF says.

Although Trump privately mentioned human rights in a historic first meeting with president Kim Jong Un in 2018, a second meeting between the two in February of 2019 was scuttled without any talk of human rights. North Korea had reportedly demanded that the U.S. stop economic sanctions.

In addition, the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations "reportedly blocked efforts to put North Korea's human rights record on the UN Security Council agenda," USCIRF said. A special envoy position at the State Department for North Korean human rights concerns has also not been filled.

North Korea should consider sanctions relief a priority and would thus be willing to entertain demands on human rights, USCIRF says.

"Policymakers should keep their expectations realistic-neither denuclearization nor democratization of North Korea is likely in the near future-but reaching at least a temporary reprieve to the security-related tensions would allow the United States to help foster deeper reforms in North Korea," the report said.

Pope Francis has spoken of the need for peace on the Korean peninsula. During Trump's visit to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea in June of 2019, Pope Francis offered a "prayer that this significant gesture constitutes a further step on the path of peace, not only on that peninsula, but in favor of the whole world."

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