In all likelihood, US President Donald Trump will be meeting with the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, in Singapore on Tuesday to discuss the possibility of North Korea's denuclearization. It has been an arduous road to get to this point, with the ever-intensifying prospect of war breaking out in the Korean peninsula dramatically shifting to a deepening dialogue over peace, all taking place in the span of a year. The premise of the summit is simple: give up nukes in exchange for security guarantees and economic assistance. But what complicates the picture is the issue of human right abuses committed by the North Korean regime. Already, human rights groups around the world as well as US and Japanese politicians are clamoring for Trump to put human rights on the summit agenda.
What will be the summit outcome's likely impact on human rights concerns? At first glance, it appears as though it will not be a crucial issue. There is a widespread consensus, within and outside the Trump administration, that bringing up human rights could potentially derail the delicate negotiation over denuclearization. Reflecting the prevailing opinion within the administration, US Senator James Risch stated that the summit should solely focus on denuclearization, rather than the fate of North Korea's infamous political prison camps or the Japanese victims of North Korea's state-sponsored abductions. Trump himself does not seem to be too keen to bring up human rights in the upcoming discussion with Kim.
In truth, the dilemma over the human rights situation in North Korea will not surface during the summit, but in its aftermath, as North Korea will inevitably be trying to normalize ties with the international community with the aim of removing sanctions. Ever since the international sanctions against North Korea were established to respond to North Korea's nuclear provocations more than a decade ago, international sanctions mainly focused on North Korean proliferation concerns, targeting a limited set of entities and individuals associated with the country's nuclear and missile development programs. Throughout last year, as North Korea's provocations were intensifying, the United States and the international community redoubled the sanctions imposed on the regime. The new sanctions mostly focused on North Korea's strategic weak spot, namely its economy, but there was also a significant effort at targeting the regime's human rights violations.
If the outcome of the summit turns out to be positive, the agreement framework between the US and North Korea will involve a trade-off between denuclearization steps taken by North Korea and security guarantees by the United States and its allies, which will eventually include the lifting of existing sanctions. Although there are currently no UN or EU sanctions specifically targeting the North Korean regime on human rights grounds, the United States has been rather prolific in this regard, having issued several unilateral sanctions against North Korean officials suspected of involvement in human rights violations. The measures largely consist of bans on travel and US companies and individuals dealing with sanctioned North Korean individuals and entities, but more critically they go straight to the top, with Kim Jong-un himself on the list of targeted individuals.
This US stance towards North Korea's human rights violations further hardened with the passage of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act in 2016. The act targets North Korea's illicit activities ranging from nuclear and missile proliferation to human rights violations, but in contrast to previous sanction laws, which left designation of sanction targets to the discretion of the US president, the 2016 act obligates the president to sanction any individual or entity that is known to have committed violations. Furthermore, sanctions can only be suspended if the North Korean regime redresses the abuses - such as repatriating abductees and improving living conditions in its political prison camps.
Human rights sanctions, despite the feeble prospect of enforcement, establish a higher bar for the regime to clear if it wishes to rejoin the community of nations. The dilemma for both Kim Jong-un and now Trump is that human rights violations, unlike denuclearization, cannot simply be redressed through political agreements. The regime would have to make serious efforts to come to terms with its own actions, more specifically investigating the reported cases of human right violations, punishing the perpetrators, and compensating the victims. Given the massive scale of violations that the regime has perpetrated, which the report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Situation of Human Rights in DPRK (COI-DPRK) evaluated as amounting to crimes against humanity, it is unlikely that the Kim regime will ever be able to address its own wrongdoings, necessitating the regime's demise if justice were to be achieved.
If the summit goes as planned, the US will start trading North Korea's denuclearization for security guarantees, such as signing a peace treaty, establishing diplomatic relations and lifting the sanctions. But without an improvement in the human rights situation taking place in parallel with the denuclearization process, many in Washington and around the world will view the agreement as an exercise of North Korea's nuclear leverage to shield the regime from being held accountable for its human rights abuses.