Leading experts on North Korea discuss human rights issues at 20th Annual Gelatt Dialogue

Former US Ambassadors to South Korea and China, NGO representatives, a North Korean escapee, and scholars gathered for the US-Asia Law Institute's (USALI) 20th Annual Timothy A. Gelatt Dialogue to discuss human rights issues in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the related roles, both traditional and newly emerging, played by China and the United Nations. The program sought to approach North Korean human rights issues in a broader context of dealing with North Korea from legal, diplomatic, historical, and geopolitical perspectives.

Stephen Bosworth

In the first session, moderated by Myung-Soo Lee, a USALI senior research scholar, Stephen Bosworth, former US ambassador to South Korea and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy and now chairman of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins, reminded the audience that the human rights issues in North Korea ought to be viewed in conjunction with other pressing issues such as nuclear weapons. He shared his long experience in dealing with North Korea and stated that certain “myths” about North Korea’s supposedly irrational or unpredictable behavior or its imminent collapse needed to be debunked. He also said that the lack of consistency in US and South Korean policies toward North Korea and a lack of support from the US Congress (as well as the North Korean government’s own conduct) hampered meaningful progress. Bosworth suggested that the current US approach of “strategic patience” was not working and that the US government should engage with North Korea based on realistic and low expectations. Professor Charles Armstrong of Columbia University argued that South Korea should overcome the mentality of a “shrimp surrounded by whales” and play a proactive and leading role in shaping the future of the Korean peninsula in ways commensurate with its global influence.  

Hyeonseo Lee

In the second session, moderated by NYU Law Professor Philip Alston, Hyeonseo Lee, who escaped from North Korea through China in the 1990s, shared her experience. She described the extreme difficulties faced by North Korean defectors living in China, who suffer from constant fear of arrest and repatriation to North Korea. Melanie Kirkpatrick, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad, added to the picture, describing North Korean defectors living in China without any legal protection and China’s harsh treatment of those who help North Korean defectors. Taking a larger view, Roberta Cohen, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), described what she claimed to be China’s violations of international law in relation to North Korean defectors, arguing that North Korean defectors were not "economic migrants" as the Chinese insisted but should rather be treated as "refugees sur place."  She suggested that, in accordance with the UN human rights and refugee standards, China must stop repatriating North Koreans refugees and international society should encourage China to see that its interests may be better served over the longer term by modifying its policies.

NYU Law Professor Ryan Goodman moderated the third panel, at which David Hawk, HRNK senior adviser, presented the history of North Korea's failure to respond to international humanitarian efforts. Greg Scarlatoiu, HRNK executive director, acknowledged the important efforts made by a coalition of human rights activist groups during the past two years. He expected that North Korea's recent charm offensive would not be successful in deterring the international condemnation of its human rights violations and China would come under increasing pressure to reconsider its repatriation policy concerning North Korean refugees. 

Donald Gregg

The final session, which was moderated by NYU Law Professor Jerome Cohen, started with his question: "In view of this horrible human rights situation in North Korea, what shall we do to improve the situation?” Donald Gregg, former US ambassador to South Korea and now chairman of the Pacific Century Institute, offered his view that the US should cease demonizing the regime, which is difficult for Westerners especially to understand, and should become more engaged with North Korea so that its leaders could see ways to improve their choices. He acknowledged that the current international efforts concerning human rights issues in North Korea had a positive impact on the regime as it had been compelled to respond to international inquiries and pressures, but he maintained that real change would come when through patient persuasion the North Korean leaders could see that new proposals suggested by the US and others would be in their own interests.

Winston Lord

Winston Lord, former US ambassador to China and former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, commented that the US should maintain its carrot and stick policies, although all the options available to the US were bad, since North Korea would not stop its nuclear program and human rights violations. He suggested that China was a part of the problem, not the solution. He offered several ideas for future policy considerations that included making it unmistakably clear to North Korea that there would be no foreign cooperation in its economic development without giving up its nuclear weapons program: “Of course most experts say that the Kim regime is here to stay. It may well be, it probably is. But that’s what everyone said about the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. At some point there will be a collapse of this hideous regime. Of course, changing the regime would be dangerous. But I prefer such risks to the inevitability of North Korean nukes and missiles and the continuous squashing of the North Korean people.”

The 2014 Gelatt Dialogue was co-sponsored by HRNK, NYU School of Law, Hurford Foundation, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Winston Lord Roundtable on US Foreign Policy and the Rule of Law in Asia, Humanity in Action, and The New York Democracy Forum.

Posted November 21, 2014