We continue the Advice Column feature with a new report from the George W. Bush Institute by Victor Cha and Robert Gallucci. The distinctive feature of the report is its strong grounding in the human rights issue, a focus of the Institute’s first report published in 2015 and an enduring preoccupation of the 43rd president.
The report leads with the nuclear challenge, including the assessment of the possibility that North Korea will continue to transfer sensitive nuclear technology and ballistic missiles to other countries. But it sees the nuclear question as of a piece with the regime’s survival imperatives and domestic repression; it therefore argues for approach that tackles the human rights issue head on.
The report makes three particular linkages. First, some of the regime’s foreign-exchange earning activities are intimately tied up with human rights abuses. Most notable is its export of “slave labor,” justifiably so-called in our view. Second, the Commission of Inquiry has fundamentally changed the game, making it impossible to ignore issues of accountability.
Finally, and more questionably, the report suggests that human rights might be a point of leverage with the regime. The report states that “the North Korean leadership is sensitive to criticism on this score, which might cause the regime to try to deflect pressure with concessions or progress on the nuclear front.” This seems largely backwards to me: rather, the regime has rushed ahead on the nuclear and missile front while attempting to make tactical—and largely meaningless—concessions on human rights. Nonetheless, I strongly endorse the point that if North Korea wants to hold negotiations “without preconditions,” they should be aware of the fact that the US, South Korea and Japan reserve the right to put human rights abuses on the agenda.
On the security issue, the specific recommendations put together the pieces in a sensible way: sustain the deterrent and reassure allies; heighten coordination; up the ante on what the United States expects from China while remaining open to diplomacy. Among the nuances are the report’s claim that the core of any negotiation is ultimately bilateral talks between the US and North Korea, “with close consultations between the United States and Japan, China, and the ROK.” The report argues for flexibility on format, but does the bilateral approach freeze out South Korea, a long-standing North Korean objective? Why not go multilateral from the start, with bilateral talks folded under a larger umbrella?
What is refreshing about the report is a quite extensive agenda with respect to advancing human rights in North Korea, starting with a clear announcement it will be part of any subsequent negotiations on a final settlement. The report argues for expanding sanctions, and for human rights as well as proliferation purposes; particularly welcome is its focus on trying to name and shame with respect to North Korean labor exports. At the multilateral level, the report outlines a “Contact Group” approach to pursuing accountability issues, with the sweetener of a dialogue on the issues with the country. The report also argues strongly for an information strategy toward the regime, a policy I strongly endorse, as well as streamlining the refugee resettlement process in which the US is playing a larger role. At the same time as taking these more forward actions, the report also rightly notes that a focus on human rights is fully complementary to humanitarian assistance on an as-needed basis.
What is not to like? The first constraint that the report will face is likely to come from the incoming administration itself. A little-remarked feature of the Trump campaign is an almost complete absence of any attention to the human rights agenda, no doubt a function of his predilection for striking deals with tyrants and an aversion to the neoliberal agenda the Cha-Gallucci report clearly represents. I don't see this agenda being a priority for a Tillerson State Department.
Second, there is the ever-present problem that pursuing the nuclear and human rights issues may not prove as seamlessly complementary as the report suggests. An agenda that transparently targets the regime—including through blunt language on unification—is hardly likely to be an agenda the regime will buy; to the contrary, it could deepen concerns about foreign penetration and subversion. But if North Korea is not cooperating in any case, there is no reason not to pursue the other elements of the strategy as long as the door is held open to diplomacy. Do we really have that much to lose by standing on principle? The report joins the debate on that crucial question.