United States efforts to deal with North Korea have always presented an
exquisite foreign-policy dilemma: whether to negotiate with a "rogue state"
that brutally and systematically violates the human rights of its own people.
During its first six years, the George W Bush administration took a hard line
that focused on "regime change" coupled with a refusal to "engage".
The unfortunate result is that North Korea is now in possession of many more
nuclear bombs (minus one that has been detonated) than when President Bush
assumed office. Northeast Asia is no closer to achieving regional peace and
stability. The North Korean
people continue to suffer.
In 2006, the Bush administration began to adopt a more pragmatic policy by
starting direct bilateral negotiations with North Korea while actively
participating in the framework of six-party talks on the North's nuclear
program. The results have been dramatic. Last week North Korea submitted a
declaration on its nuclear program. Bush promptly reciprocated by scratching
North Korea from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. The next day the
cooling tower of North Korea's nuclear power plant at Yongbyon was blown up in
front of foreign observers and media.
Not everyone agrees with this US policy turnabout. Some say it has yielded too
much by promising to drop North Korea from the terrorism list in exchange for a
less-than-complete disclosure of the country's nuclear programs, while others
complain North Korean human rights abuses have been relegated to the back
This brings us to the current US domestic political impasse: a hold on the
nomination of veteran diplomat Kathleen Stephens to the post of ambassador to
South Korea. Despite strong endorsements from both sides of the aisle and a
unanimous recommendation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the
nomination has been stalled by a single member of the US Senate. The reason
given: the nominee and the Bush administration refuse to include North Korean
human rights in the six-party process agenda and otherwise make it a more
visible feature of the US policy towards North Korea.
The situation is unfortunate and could ultimately prove self-defeating. It
threatens to undermine the very way in which the six-party talks address human
rights. Currently, the working groups on US-North Korea and Japan-North Korea
normalization are homing in on human rights as a pre-condition. Efforts to use
the talks as the basis for creation of a regional security mechanism provide
the right opportunity to push North Korea into greater accountability on
international human rights standards.
It would be a shame for the human rights issue to derail the negotiations. It
does not take much imagination to foresee the North Koreans retreating back
into isolation and resuming its clandestine efforts to develop nuclear weapons,
once again assuring itself that it is the only way to deal with the outside
The nomination of Stephens, with her distinguished human rights track record in
South Korea, the Balkans and Northern Ireland, is broadly popular among South
Koreans who appreciate her Korean ties. A former Peace Corps volunteer in the
country and fluent Korean speaker, she is considered the first genuine "Korea
hand" to be named to this important post. South Korea is in the throes of a
major debate on how to redefine relations with the United States. The
appointment of someone with whom Koreans identify can certainly have a positive
effect in strengthening the alliance - and, ultimately, producing progress in
Here we must remind ourselves of the ultimate goal in dealing with North Korea:
the improvement of the lot of the North Korean people and the "normalization"
of the regime. The best way is to proceed to negotiate with the regime, however
distasteful that may be. If and when a breakthrough comes and North Korea
normalizes relations with the United States, it will open up the floodgates to
foreign aid and investment that will surely transform the country quickly and
This is not to say that human rights in North Korea should be relegated to the
back burner. Indeed, the championing of North Korean human rights by Congress
and NGOs should continue while the Bush administration continues to try to
"open" North Korea through negotiations. This would only be in the best
tradition of US foreign policy - striking that delicate balance between
promoting and defending universal values such as human rights, on the one hand,
and pragmatism, on the other.
Hahm Chaibong ([email protected]) is a senior political scientist at
RAND Corporation, a non-profit institution that helps improve policy and
decision-making through research and analysis.