Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Bringing the Human Rights Aspect Back in...

Those who follow Korea (especially North Korea) or Asia in general might be familiar with Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at AEI, who has, for some time, been looking at North Korea. Although I can't claim to be a Korea scholar, what I've noticed about his work is that he seems able to put numbers to things that few others can. Reliable data is a commodity when dealing with the North and therefore inherently valuable in discussions thereof. Being unable to count my own fingers, I'm also always impressed by the additional insight economists can bring to discussions of international politics.

This is, in part, why I found his recent op-ed in the NY Times (written along with Christopher Griffin, also at AEI) interesting. Instead of his usual focus on economics, Eberstadt addresses the plight of North Korean refugees and the US, ROK, and PRC failure to address their situation. When once this was the only argument one heard for working with the North instead of against it, it now seems to have faded into the background due to military and political concerns (as is often the case, I guess.)

With all the buzz over the 6PT and the agreement reached, does anyone remember hearing anything about human rights? (I realize that the talks were about disarmament, but if it were a priority, surely one of the several working groups formed afterwards to address specific issues could have been devoted to this topic). I wonder if it's because a more subtle approach to this issue has proven more successful with the North? Have we simply grown weary of trying to address these issues in North Korea?

Eberstadt urges the development of an underground railroad for DPRK refugees and undercuts the logistical difficulty of resettlement by noting that the ROK's Constitution affords every North Korean the right to resettle in the South (I didn't know this) and that the US has committed to taking in North Korean refugees (under the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004).

He then observes, correctly I think, that the key is safe passage through China and states that rescuing refugees will "materially advance United States security interests" because defections would weaken Kim Jong-Il's regime and force it to respond to the concerns of its people.

This is where I disagree with Mr. Eberstadt. First, I simply don't buy that a few defections would influence the responsiveness of the Kim regime writ large. I see no evidence to convince me that this would be the case and have the weight of the historical record on the opposite side of the argument. Moreover, although it might make a political point, how does the instability and political tension that would undoubtedly arise "materially advance United States security interests"?

Second, Eberstadt suggests the use of "informal assurances" to coax China into becoming the way point for these refugees. So wait a minute, one of the primary motivations of the Chinese government for years, if not decades, in allowing Kim's regime to survive has been stability along its border, and we're supposed to believe that China would welcome a flood of tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of the poorest, most needy individuals in the world into one of its most economically challenged areas. And even if the US, UN, ROK, and others could deliver on his idea of processing refugees quickly and moving them out of China, we're supposed to believe that China would welcome the kind of high profile international presence such an operation would entail? Because of "informal assurances"? What of the political considerations between the North-South and between the North-China (one could aruge that these have been enough to halt progress on the issue thus far in and of themselves).

I applaud Mr. Eberstadt for brining the issue of human rights back into the discussion...and for calling out all those involved (especially the US) for their lack of action. We often hear the argument that every day that passes without progress is another day that the North has to build weapons. Well, it's also another day that thousands upon thousands of people suffer.

I find it discouraging that little progress has been made, but it seems like the only way to make headway with the North is to link issues with security measures in a responsible, politically sensitive way (because security issues seem to be on the short list of topics that those involved in the 6PT take seriously). Again, I welcome calls like this...especially if they inspire more realistic measures to reach the goal of alleviating suffering, but I just don't see measures that: fail to include some sort of multilateral plan for implementation; that work in a semi-legal fashion; or that undercut the political, security, and economic position of one of the most important participants in the negotiations with the North (i.e. China) as the best way of doing so.


Grace said...

Like Jap chae said, I highly doubt that "informal assurances" will be enough to reassure China that it will be only a way-station for the North Korean refugees. Greater contact between these refugees and its own Korean minority will have a big impact on stability--which is the CCP's greatest obsession--and thus make the CCP unwilling to support a refugee railway. I think Eberstadt's opinion that Chinese fears will "vanish" is too optimistic.

And in technical terms, what will be done with the 100s of thousands of refugees? I highly doubt the US or any other nation will be willing to take a significant number of people when even South Korea, its "brother," is unwilling to have refugees streaming over its borders. Eberstadt says that "it is natural and fitting that South Korea should be the destination for the overwhelming majority of North Korea’s freedom-seekers." The problem is, while it may be "natural," few South Koreans want to bear the economical and social burdens of such an action.

Eric said...

I agree with the Jap chae's statement that a few defectors will not alter the NK regime's policies, but I would say the a public and large scale refugee project possibly co-opted by the US and PRC might have an influence on Pyongyang.

In my opinion the difficulty is that no one knows how exactly they would respond, and it is not unlikely that they would opt for stricter controls on the border, more human rights infringements, and an overall bleaker future for the North Korean public in spite of international calls. In that way, a concerted multi-national effort to engage in a refugee acceptance program would be de-stabilizing and not necessarily in anyone's best interest.

I think the human rights issue has been left off the table at the 6PT for the same reason - that negociations are very sensitive already and if the ultimate goal is to pursue a freeze on the weapons program, it would behoof the other 5 parties to not breach subjects which the DPRK might find antagonizing. I believe the deplorable treatment of DPRK citizens is an area that needs international attention, but I think the framers of the 6PT are right to leave it alone until the nuclear issue has been probed. Hopefully we will see it in a future round or working group.

Erin Robinson said...

I think, idealistically speaking, we would all like to be able to follow Mr. Eberstadt's proposals and assist the refugees. However, like jap chae, Grace, and Eric, I agree that he approaches it entirely too simplistically. Kim's failings as a leader are probably not something negotiators should throw in his face when trying to come to an agreement. Each country involved, as well, has its own priorities, which are, first and foremost, domestic. At least from the US perspective, until there is a large and forceful movement to deal with the human rights issue, the US government will continue to ignore it. Right now, the biggest concern plastered over the media is not human rights concerns or refugees, but rather disarmament, and the frightening concept of Kim with nuclear weapons. As long as these are the main stories about North Korea, it will continue to dominate US policy-makers' minds and the media. The best way to really get the US to shift its position is to motivate the diaspora within the country to form an effective lobby, such as the Taiwanese have, or the Israelis have. The diasporas, in these cases, have the best chance of motivating foreign governments to act, and Korea has a better chance of forming an effective diaspora than, say, someone from Darfur.