The Debate

North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses and Weapons of Mass Destruction Are Inextricably Linked

Recent Features

The Debate | Opinion

North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses and Weapons of Mass Destruction Are Inextricably Linked

The U.N. Security Council should simultaneously address the nuclear program and the human rights abuses that are inseparable aspects of the Kim Jong Un regime.

North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses and Weapons of Mass Destruction Are Inextricably Linked
Credit: Depositphotos

In September, North Korean state media called on all citizens to display new nuclear missile “trophies” – models of the Hwasong-17 and Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles – at home, at work, and in vehicles. No doubt there will be severe consequences for anyone not doing so. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un traveled to Russia, offering munitions for Moscow’s war on Ukraine in return for nuclear submarine and satellite technology.

Some find North Korea and its ruling Kim dynasty either amusing or irrelevant. It is neither. It is deadly serious – in its repressive abuse of its own 25 million people and in its development of weapons of mass destruction. The combination of the two presents an urgent threat to international security. In line with its mandate, the United Nations Security Council should simultaneously address the nuclear program and the human rights abuses that are inseparable aspects of this dangerous government.

In August, Volker Turk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, warned that severe and widespread human rights violations in North Korea are directly linked to the government’s pursuit of nuclear and ballistic missile technology. Elizabeth Salmon, the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea, has acknowledged that peace and denuclearization cannot be addressed without action on human rights. 

The United States seems to be waking up to that truth. After a six-year vacancy, the Biden administration has appointed a State Department veteran, Ambassador Julie Turner, as special envoy for North Korean human rights.

The European Union, too, has reaffirmed its particular concern about food insecurity in North Korea. A joint statement issued by the G-7 foreign ministers following North Korea’s ICBM launch in March noted that “the dire humanitarian situation in the DPRK is the result of the DPRK’s diversion of the DPRK’s resources into weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs rather than into the welfare of its people.” (DPRK is an abbreviation for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.)

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield has admonished Russia and China for blocking any action against North Korea at the U.N. Security Council. “You don’t get to abandon Security Council responsibilities because the DPRK might sell you weapons to fuel your war of aggression in Ukraine, or because you think that they make a good regional buffer to the United States,” she said in November 2022

Amid this widespread recognition of the threat posed by the North Korea government, Turner and Thomas-Greenfield should bring together relevant actors from the United Nations, the EU, the G-20, and the newly-expanded BRICS group to aggressively pursue a new coalition of concern on North Korea. This coalition should address the most pressing concerns, including food insecurity, access to information, and the development of weapons of mass destruction.

A United Nations Commission of Inquiry concluded that the North Korean government perpetrates crimes against humanity against its own people, including, “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence… and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” 

Amnesty International has found that “anyone deemed to act in a manner threatening to Kim Jong Un’s government risks being imprisoned for life or executed.”

Of the many freedoms promised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Pyongyang government provides for none. The nation is structured as a police state, its citizens expected not just to endure repression but to enforce it. The internal security apparatus invades every household and permeates every gathering. Neighbors are expected to monitor and report on neighbors; failure to do so arouses suspicion and further deprivation. 

Individuals, families, and communities wither under constant demands for sacrifice. The use of forced labor, including among schoolchildren, is widespread. Hunger is a fact of life and starvation a constant threat. No one is allowed to leave the country, aside from those sent abroad to labor as near-slaves to earn foreign currency for the regime. North Korea hosts a vast constellation of police stations, detention facilities, prison and labor camps into which countless people disappear to be beaten, tortured, starved, and condemned to death.

Amnesty International has reported that hundreds of thousands have died from the consequences of hunger; many millions more have suffered from chronic malnutrition. The actions of the government have exacerbated the effects of food shortages by denying their existence, imposing ever tighter controls on people who try to travel to seek food, and making equitable distribution of international assistance nearly impossible. Food shortages and insecurity are particularly severe for marginalized groups: children, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang has spent more than $4 billion, over one-quarter of its gross national product, maintaining its 1.2 million member military. This includes the accelerated development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile systems.

North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, and tested its first nuclear weapon on October 9, 2006. The International Atomic Energy Commission has not had access to North Korea’s nuclear facilities since 2009. In 2017, Pyongyang conducted its first test of a thermonuclear device – the most powerful type of atomic weapon. 

This year, scores of ballistic missile tests and several intercontinental missile tests have been launched. In April and July, Pyongyang tested its most powerful missile to date, the Hwasong-18, with a range of over 15,000 kilometers (9300 miles), and the potential to carry three or four warheads. The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation estimates that North Korea possesses 30 nuclear weapons and the nuclear material to make another 100.

The combination of gross and widespread human rights violations and the simultaneous development of nuclear weaponry presents a grave crisis. Pyongyang must be persuaded that North Korea will not thrive and may not survive if it continues to sacrifice the rights, the wellbeing, and the very lives of the North Korean people. Government officials at all levels throughout North Korea must be made to realize that impunity from consequences never lasts forever. A promise must be made that sooner or later the North Korean government will be held accountable for the crimes it has committed against its own people. 

The human rights abuses perpetrated by the North Korea government are exactly the crimes the human rights movement was meant to address. Allowing its abuses to continue unchecked undermines both freedom and security. The United Nations has the capacity and the mandate to improve the lives of the North Korean people and in so doing enhance the security of us all.