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Congress Wants to Up the Pressure on North Korean Human Rights Violators

By Jenna Gibson

Earlier this month, three U.S. senators took on North Korea (DPRK) by introducing a broad sanctions bill aimed at addressing concerns about cyberwarfare and the North’s continued nuclear ambitions. Known as the North Korean Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act (S. 2144), this bill would codify the sanctions put in place by presidential Executive Orders after previous North Korean provocations, including the Sony hacking incident last year, and impose additional sanctions on the North, including penalizing any financial institution that conducts business with the DPRK. S. 2144 mirrors many of the provisions in a similar North Korea sanctions bill (H.R. 757) that passed the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives last February. But while these bills are sold as a response to cyber and nuclear provocations from the North, the Senate and House versions also contain additional steps to address the issue of human rights and accountability in the DPRK, building on the previously enacted North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004.

Along with its enhanced sanctions provisions, Title III of this the new bill asks for concrete plans on how the U.S. Government can more effectively promote human rights in North Korea. If passed, the president would be required to submit a classified report to Congress on how to make “unrestricted, unmonitored, and inexpensive electronic mass communications available to the people of North Korea.”  In addition, the bill requires the State Department to submit another report to Congress to delineate a strategy on how to “promote international awareness of the human rights situation in North Korea.”

Further, S. 2144 takes on the issue of forced overseas labor of North Korean citizens. Interestingly, this is one of the few sections unique to the Senate bill – perhaps as a result of the increased attention put on this subject since the House bill passed committee in February. In fact, this issue was the subject of a program KEI hosted earlier this year in collaboration with the Database Center for Human Rights in North Korea, which raised awareness about the plight of North Koreans sent abroad in to work in terrible conditions to raise money for the Kim regime. To address the issue, the Senate bill would require an annual report that includes a list of countries that forcibly repatriate North Korean refugees,  a list of countries where North Korean laborers work, and a diplomatic strategy to end repatriation of North Korean refugees and forced labor and slavery of North Koreans overseas.

One other difference between S. 2144 and H.R. 757 is that the Senate bill creates a North Korea Enforcement and Human Rights fund, which would take fines for violating sanctions and redirect the money toward human rights promotion, such as radio broadcasting into the DPRK.

Public understanding of the North Korean human rights issue has risen exponentially since the release of the United Nation’s Commission of Inquiry report in February 2014. Up until that point, in the mind of the general public, the DPRK was a strange, mysterious place where bad things probably happen. The COI report, with its thorough and detailed descriptions of exactly what the Kim regime has done to the people of North Korea, changed all that, and has allowed a discussion of North Korean human rights to make its way into the media in an unprecedented way. In a similar way, producing official documentation and creating concrete strategies to combat the gross human rights violations occurring within North Korea and in countries where North Korean forced laborers work could keep this important issue in the news, and hopefully up the pressure on this regime to make some changes.

One word of caution, however – these new reports must stick to the facts and not become hyperbolic in order to be viewed as credible in the eyes of the global community. The harsh truth about North Korea’s deplorable human rights violations is already so startling that there is no need to exaggerate.  This has been a problem for some North Korean defectors who reportedly feel pressured to attract more attention by exaggerating their harrowing escape stories.

If done correctly, these new American publications could serve a similar function as the COI report. The State Department’s annual Human Rights Report and International Religious Freedom Report are the gold standard for tracking these issues around the world, and should serve as models for this new North Korea-focused report. Similar to the COI report, the annual release of these State Department reports garners a lot of attention from foreign governments and from the general public. While these bills have not become law yet, Title III of H.R. 757 and S. 2144 legislation could be one of the few items that can easily pass Congress because of the commonality between the two bills, and this provision would not be viewed as objectionable by the Executive Branch. Hopefully, this provision will be signed into law and this new publication can become a similarly authoritative source that will keep the discussion going about this important issue.

Jenna Gibson is the Associate Director for Communication Technology and Programs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Phil Roeder’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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