The potential release of three American prisoners from North Korea’s labor camps — reported to be “imminent” — would be a unique success at the intersection of human rights and peacebuilding efforts in the East Asian country.
The Vatican has supported both nuclear disarmament through peaceful negotiation and the defense of human rights that safeguard the dignity of each person created in the image and likeness of God.
However, in the case of the Korean peninsula, the question of whether to prioritize peace negotiations or human rights concerns is a frequent point of contention among North Korea experts.
“You can not resolve all of the problems simultaneously. For now, I would say that we focus on nuclear issues,” argued one of the South Korean president’s special advisors, Chung-in Moon, in a panel entitled “Balancing Security, Humanitarian, and Human Rights Concerns in Addressing the North Korea Crisis.”
“If you put the human rights and democracy issues together, along with the nuclear issues, then North Korea will regard it as a hostile act by the United States and they will never make concession on the nuclear issue,” continued the South Korean adviser during his Feb. 27 visit to Washington D.C.
But while most South Koreans expressed enthusiasm about the historic Inter-Korean Summit on April 27 - in which South Korean President Moon Jae-In met with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un - some expressed criticism that the meeting required turning a blind eye to the Kim regime’s extensive human rights violations.
Yeonmi Park is a young North Korean defector who fled the regime in 2007. Park emphasized in a recent interview that amidst the ongoing diplomacy with North Korea in 2018, the North has made it much more difficult for anyone to escape the country.
“People in South Korea are being deceived by this dictator. While he is coming to South Korea right now and giving these peace talks and talking about the bright future, the crackdown on North Korean people on the borders is worse than ever before,” Park told New York Public Radio on May 3.
The total number of defections from North Korea in 2017 dropped to its lowest point since 2001, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification. The downward trend in escapees continued in the first quarter of 2018.
“What he [Kim Jung Un] is doing right now is trying to maintain his power. Nothing he is doing is going to change the North Korean people’s life,” continued Park, who has been an outspoken human rights advocate since her escape. “What can be more urgent than the lives of the people in North Korea’s concentration camp right now?”
There are currently an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 people in North Korea’s six political prison camps, in which the U.S. State Department has found evidence of starvation, forced labor, and torture.
“Reports indicate that tens of thousands of prisoners facing hard labor or execution are Christians from underground churches or who practice in secret,” said the 2018 report by the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom.
When 22-year-old American student Otto Warmbier was returned to his family last year after being detained in North Korea for 17 months, he had severe brain damage and died shortly after. Warmbier had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for stealing a political poster from his hotel while on a sightseeing tour of North Korea.
His parents filed a lawsuit against the North Korean government on May 3.
The three Korean Americans currently detained in North Korea are Tony Kim, Kim Hak-song, and Kim Dong-chul. Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song both taught at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a university founded in 2010 by a Christian Korean-American entrepreneur, before their arrest. They were detained for “espionage” and “hostile acts,” respectively. Kim Dong-chul is a Christian pastor who was sentenced to 10 years’ hard labor in North Korea in 2016, on charges of spying.
Negotiations are ongoing to release the three detainees. President Trump wrote about the negotiations on Twitter on May 2, concluding with “Stay tuned!”
As the United States prepares for a historic meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jung Un, it remains to be seen what balance will be achieved between human rights and denuclearization.
A State Department spokesperson has issued a statement promising that the U.S. government will continue to press for accountability for human rights abuses. This includes efforts to increase the flow of information into one of the most isolated countries in the world.
But it could be a question of timing, especially when it comes to denuclearization, said John S. Park, director of the Korea Working Group at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
“Everyone is cautiously optimistic. Launching a denuclearization mechanism is a critical initial step. The subsequent steps are much more complex — verification and inspection actions,” he said in an interview with the Harvard Gazette on April 30.
“It’s not going to be a function of North Korea giving up the nuclear weapons all at once, but rather, as part of a process. And this is where the timescale becomes a big focus of the diplomacy and negotiations ahead,” he said.
“From a North Korean perspective, the longer the process, the better it is for them. But from the U.S. perspective, given the rapid development of nuclear, and particularly the intercontinental ballistic missile capability last year, the timescale is much shorter.”
As the process moves forward and developments continue, Catholic leaders have called for prayers for the peninsula.
Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, apostolic administrator of Pyongyang and archbishop of Seoul, said that he prays a rosary every day for North Korea.
In a radio interview with Catholic Pyeonghwa Broadcasting following the Inter-Korean summit, the cardinal said he prays that he will someday be able to celebrate Mass together with North Korean Catholics.
For now, he asks Catholics to join him in praying for “authentic peace” and to not fall into despair or complacency.