As John Kerry makes his first trip to Asia as secretary of state, North Korea seems poised to welcome him with a flurry of missile tests, and in Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo, he will surely discuss how to deal with North Korea's recent provocations. But Washington's head-on approach to Pyongyang's nuclear program has failed for decades, and the situation has only grown more dangerous, as shown by the new reports that North Korea may have developed a warhead small enough to fit on a ballistic missile. The best way to resolve the ongoing nuclear crisis is to stop talking about nukes -- and instead focus on advancing North Korean human rights, reorienting global attention from the North's plutonium to its people.
Amnesty International has long chronicled the DPRK's endemic human rights abuses, under which millions suffer. That suffering takes many forms. Food insecurity and malnutrition are widespread, and there are persistent reports of starvation, particularly in more remote regions. The country's famines have been under-reported inside and outside the DPRK because of severe restrictions of movement and a near-total clamp-down on expression, information, and association.
Hundreds of thousands of people -- including children -- are arbitrarily held in political prison camps and other detention facilities, where they are subjected to forced labor, denial of food as punishment, torture, and public executions. In 2011, Amnesty used satellites to document the apparent expansion of some of these prison camps. Last month, analysis of newly acquired images showed what appeared to be the blurring of lines between a political prison camp (Kwanliso-14) and the surrounding population, raising fears of new movement controls and other restrictions on people living near prison camps.
In January, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said that North Korea had "one of the worst -- but least understood and reported -- human rights situations in the world." And last month the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to launch a commission of inquiry into "systemic, widespread and grave" human rights violations inside the DPRK, including crimes against humanity. This is a laudatory step -- even if there is little chance the North will cooperate with the inquiry -- but the real question is not whether there are severe human rights violations inside the DPRK. The question is what can be done about them.
For the better part of three decades, the world has focused its attention on ending the DPRK's nuclear weapons program, leaving the human element largely as an afterthought. Those in the know have avidly watched every meter of concrete poured at the Yongbyon nuclear facility, every shovel of dirt removed from nuclear-test-site adits, and every kilometer of highway driven by road-mobile missile systems. Sternly worded letters have been drafted, U.N. Security Council resolutions adopted, a framework agreement struck, cooling towers destroyed, international monitoring schemes devised, a "Leap Day" deal crafted.
Nothing has worked.
And the coercive tactics favored by the international community to dissuade the DPRK from developing nuclear weapons -- trade sanctions, diplomatic isolation, travel restrictions, limits on cultural and educational exchanges, suspension of humanitarian assistance -- have arguably bolstered the legitimacy and power of those in Pyongyang who fear openness more than isolation. The marshals of the Korean People's Army and their precocious leader are masters at playing chess with a board populated by bombast, infantry divisions, artillery pieces, Scud missiles, and nukes.