The changes in U.S.-North Korean relations over the past year have been drastic enough to give any casual observer whiplash: North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump have gone from openly exchanging threats of nuclear war to agreeing to the first ever meeting between a North Korean head of state and a sitting U.S. president, set to be held Tuesday in Singapore.
While the progression from threats of war to overtures of peace and possible denuclearization should be applauded, the dismal human rights situation in North Korea should not and cannot be ignored and should be included as part of any ongoing negotiations.
Peace is necessary, but not sufficient for flourishing
Despite Kim’s recent push to improve his global image in a so-called “charm offensive,” we should not be distracted from the deeper truth that lies beneath the facade of diplomatic goodwill: North Korea remains a repressive autocratic regime that maintains horrific political prison camps, monitors, arrests, tortures, and kills Christians and those of other faiths, commits worldwide cyber-attacks, and flouts international sanctions by engaging in illegal trade, human trafficking, and drug smuggling.
Christians and other concerned observers should welcome the recent de-escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and fervently pray and hope for peace, but that peace should not come at the cost of leaving the North Korean people in their dire situation. The absence of war does not mean that people are flourishing. True flourishing can only come through the empowerment of free markets and a political system that upholds the rule of law and respects religious freedom, which provides the basis for all rights. One needs only look at South Korea in comparison to confirm these undeniable facts.
A tale of two Koreas
South Korea, which maintains a republican government with democratic elections and a robust market economy, has the 15th largest GDP in the world, above that of Canada or Australia. About 29 percent of people in South Korea are Christian, and those in the South are free to live, travel, and believe as they see fit.
Conversely, North Korea maintains a communist dictatorship led by a hereditary cult of personality with a centrally-controlled economy. It ranks 118th in the world for GDP, below that of war-torn Syria and Yemen. Only about one percent of North Koreans are Christian. The nonprofit Open Doors has rated North Korea as the single worst persecutor of Christians in the world.
North and South Korea share an ethnic background, language, and cultural heritage. The major difference between the two is the form of government under which their people have been ruled since the Korean peninsula was liberated from imperial Japanese control in 1945.
The road to true flourishing
Nuclear weapons are rightly a major focus of the ongoing negotiations between the United States and North Korea. President Trump should not jeopardize the talks or weaken the United States’ bargaining position by focusing on human rights for fear of losing the progress that has been made.
Instead, denuclearization should be a starting point from which further dialogue and engagement can take place. It will not be an overnight process, and concessions will have to be made, to believe otherwise would be to ignore history. But using denuclearization as an end in itself and stopping there, rather than using it as a means to the greater end of opening up North Korea to further reforms would be great folly.
A North Korea that opens itself to international trade and relationships by giving up some or all of its nuclear capabilities will soon discover what the West has known for centuries: when goods and ideas flow across borders, tanks and boots do not. Lasting peace can only be achieved if North Korea opens itself up, and human rights, grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition are the lynchpin of this process.
To lose sight of the ultimate goal of a free and flourishing Korean Peninsula by ignoring the North’s human rights record and appalling treatment of those of faith would be to lose sight of the very foundations of our own values and prosperity as well.
If you’d like to dig deeper on religious freedom and the human rights situation in North Korea, read “Fighting for totalitarianism’s victims: An interview with Suzanne Scholte” from Religion & Liberty.
If you are interested in getting expert analysis on the latest developments in North Korea, I highly recommend visiting 38 North, a blog maintained by the nonpartisan Henry L. Stimson Center.