Three years ago this month, the United Nations found North Korea guilty of committing crimes against humanity. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), drew unprecedented attention to the plight of the North Korean people.
Sadly, little has been done to alleviate their suffering.
In its 2015 National Security Strategy, the Obama administration identified North Korea, particularly its weapons development programs, as a significant national security threat to the U.S. The Trump administration will need to craft its own strategy to address that threat, and North Korea’s latest missile test adds a renewed sense of urgency to the task.
But North Korea’s evils do not begin and end with missiles and nuclear bombs. A comprehensive strategy for dealing with Pyongyang must recognize that many of the security threats emanating from the Hermit Kingdom cannot be ameliorated without addressing the human rights abuses committed routinely by the Kim regime.
The Dear Leader regards human rights abuses as a tool of statecraft—a means of holding the North Korean population in check. This week’s assassination of Kim Jong-nam, his half-brother, demonstrates that no one is safe from Kim’s murderous machinations.
It runs in the family. Three generations of Kims have now sent entire families to political prison camps for committing alleged political crimes. The COI estimates that between 80,000 and 120,000 people are in prison camps today.
In North Korea, a prison term is often a death sentence. It can also involve torture, hard labor, and for women and children, often severe sexual exploitation. The mere threat of being sent to a prison camp or execution are enough to silence dissent.
Human rights abuses not only help Kim remain in power, they also generate profits for the regime. Many of these ill-gotten gains may subsequently be diverted to fund weapons development.
One study suggests that North Korea spent $1.3 billion on its missile program in 2012 alone. Meanwhile, its people starve. In 2015, the UN World Food Program asked foreign donors to contribute $111 million for food aid to North Korea. The regime also profits from what amounts to slavery. The Asan Institute for Policy Studies reports that nearly 50,000 North Korean workers are forced to labor overseas, sometimes without compensation, for as much as 20 hours at a time. When these workers do get paid, most must forfeit the majority of their wages to the Kim regime.
The same report noted that workers were not allowed to be paid more than $150 per month—a mere 10 to 20 percent of the value of the labor they performed. The regime appears to pocket as much as $360 million annually from the sweat of these laborers – and all money that can be channeled into weapons programs.
To discourage the Kim regime from committing human rights abuses, and to threaten the profits the regime reaps from those abuses, the U.S. should beef up existing sanctions. The predominance of the American dollar in the international financial system gives the U.S. the ability to influence norms and behaviors by directly targeting funding sources that perpetuate human rights violations in North Korea.
The Obama administration sanctioned Kim Jong-Un and other North Korean officials for their human rights abuses for the first time in 2016. This was a positive step forward, but more effort can and should be made to identify and designate additional North Korean officials that commit human rights abuses. The U.S. should use Treasury’s financial tools, like the Specially Designated Nationals List or newer authorities granted under the Global Magnitsky Act, to target companies in countries that employ North Korean forced labor abroad and North Korean officials involved in enslaving, exploiting and abusing its own citizens.
In the early days of the Trump administration, North Korea has made clear that it will continue its rogue behavior. This makes even more urgent the need for a strategy that addresses security and human rights challenges and acknowledges the link between the two issues.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes