North Korea Is Walking Back War — And Pundits Are Strangely Disappointed

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In talks this week at the DMZ, South Korea welcomed the participation of North Korea in the upcoming Winter Olympics. The two countries also discussed restarting reunions of divided families and reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula. Earlier, both sides reestablished their hotline.

All of this adult conversation is a welcome change from the war of epithets between the “dotard” president of the United States and the “little rocket man” in Pyongyang.

Strange, then, that a politically diverse set of pundits in the United States has been worried only about how North Korea could use these talks to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States.

Scott Snyder, from the Council on Foreign Relations, speculates that Kim Jong Un’s overture is a ploy to trap South Korean President Moon Jae-in “into concessions that might weaken South Korea’s alliance with the United States.” According to Danny Russel, the top Asia policy person in the Obama administration, “This is a classic united we stand, divided we fall situation. It’s always easier to maintain five party solidarity when North Korea is behaving badly.”

And from the American Enterprise Institute on the right, Nicholas Eberstadt warns that “Pyongyang regards South Korea as the weakest link in the gathering global campaign to pressure North Korea to denuclearize” and urges Seoul not to “get played.”

Then there’s the Wilson Center’s Robert Litwak, writing a piece in The New York Times entitled “A United Front Against North Korea.” Here’s the core of his argument:

We should be wary of Mr. Kim’s intentions. His gambit may be a ploy to buy time for the additional testing needed to acquire the capability to strike the continental United States. He may simply be trying to extract economic relief. Or his overture may be purely strategic, an attempt to drive a wedge between South Korea and its superpower patron, the United States.

Everything revolves around the pronoun “we.” Is Litwak speaking about himself and his family? He and the Trump administration? All Americans? All Americans and South Koreans? Or perhaps he means the entire world except for North Korea?

Well, we should be wary of all such arguments. And by “we,” let me very specific: all people who want, above all, to avoid war on the Korean peninsula.

I, for one, would be delighted if North and South Korea made an agreement that cut out the United States. That’s because the current administration in charge in Washington is absolutely, without doubt, bat-poop crazy. And I don’t have to read Michael Wolff’s latest book to make this assertion. Even if only half of Fire and Fury is accurate, it merely confirms what was previously part of the public record.

Yes, North Korea is currently ruled by a ruthless leader who maintains one of the worst human rights-abusing systems in the world. Yes, Kim Jong Un is pushing ahead with the country’s nuclear weapons program.

But on the apocalypse scale from zero (no problem) to ten (fire and fury), I’m more worried about the “button” on the desk in the Oval Office and the capacity of the Trump administration to wreak havoc in Northeast Asia.

Despite all the enormous potential costs of war in and around the Korean peninsula, the administration is still debating whether it can get away with a limited military strike inside North Korea. Outside the administration, pundits like the Cold War dinosaur Edward Luttwak continue to urge the administration to throw caution to the wind and start bombing.

Given this gung-ho militarism in Washington, I’d much rather see the two Koreas taking the lead in walking the peninsula back from the edge of war.

North Korean Strategies

Every time North and South Korea begin to talk, American pundits say pretty much the same thing: “Hey, hey, South Koreans! Don’t forget about us! Don’t let Korean nationalism cloud your perspective! Don’t be lured into appeasing your abusive partner up north!”

It’s all rather patronizing — as if South Korean leaders are incapable of developing policies without the assistance of their wiser elder brother in Washington. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is in fact quite capable of negotiating with Pyongyang and reassuring the Trump administration that it’s still controlling the overall dynamic. Indeed, Moon even went the extra mile by thanking Trump for making the inter-Korean talks possible (a shrewd, if inaccurate, assertion).

Let’s be honest: Of course North Korea is trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul. That’s known as geopolitics, people! The United States does it all the time. What was the détente with China in the 1970s but a huge wedge that Washington attempted to drive between Beijing and Moscow?

North Korea is all about the geopolitics of the wedge. After all, it’s a weak country with not a lot of levers at its disposal. Economic pressure? Not with a GDP on the same level as Mozambique. Military intervention? Not for a really long time.

During the Cold War, Pyongyang used its relatively unusual position as an unorthodox member of the Communist world to play China off the Soviet Union and vice versa. After 1989, it tried to make separate arrangements with Japan, the United States, and South Korea, all to bolster its disadvantageous bargaining position. And now it’s using its nuclear weapons program as a way to both protect itself from attack and to lure the United States back to the negotiating table to get what it really wants.

So, yes, North Korea is using its overture to the South as a way to improve its bargaining position vis-a-vis the United States. The question is not if but why.

The abovementioned pundits imagine that North Korea needs breathing room to further develop its nuclear and missile capacities. Well, frankly, it already secured that breathing room — precisely because the United States failed, on several occasions, to negotiate more seriously to provide Pyongyang with something tangible in exchange for said nuclear and missile capacities.

What else might North Korea want? To take over South Korea? In theory, perhaps, the Kim regime believes in unifying the peninsula under the country’s putative ideology of juche. In practice, however, the regime knows that it’s completely outclassed militarily, economically, and technologically by the South. It’s like imagining Taiwan taking over mainland China.

So, what does that leave?

Number one, North Korea doesn’t want to be bombed by the United States.

Number two, it wants to be recognized as a legitimate country. That would in turn confer legitimacy on the ruling elite.

Number three, it wants access to the global economy and the capital that any serious reconstruction of industry and agriculture requires.

In a very limited way, North Korea can achieve its third goal with economic agreements with South Korea. The Kaesong Industrial Complex, which combined South Korean managerial expertise and capital with North Korean labor, was one such effort.

But in truth, to achieve these goals, North Korea needs an agreement with the United States.

So, yes, Kim’s overture to South Korea is a wedge-making effort. But more importantly it’s a way to create a dynamic that will eventually get the United States to the negotiating table.

The end game, in other words, isn’t a nuclear weapons program full stop. You can’t eat nuclear weapons. The end game is a place at the table, regionally and internationally, and for that North Korea needs to deal with the number one gatekeeper: the United States.

The Olympics, Security, and Human Rights

The Trump administration has already moderated its tone about North Korea thanks to the efforts of South Korea. In a conversation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump agreed to “deconflict” the Olympics by postponing U.S.-South Korean military exercises until after the event.

The postponement is supposed to be contingent on North Korea not conducting any further nuclear or missile tests. There have been conflicting reports that North Korea is indeed preparing another long-range missile test. Perhaps it’s only considering a rocket engine test to signal that it wants its talks but enhanced deterrence as well.

But not everyone is enthusiastic at the prospect of North Korea participating in the upcoming Olympics.

Over at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, Bruce Klingner asks why North Korea should be welcomed at the Winter Olympics if much of the world supported a boycott of apartheid South Africa. “In response to North Korea’s far more egregious human rights violations — which the United Nations has ruled to be ‘crimes against humanity’ — the world allows and even encourages Pyongyang to participate,” he writes.

But these are not parallel situations. South Africa, during the apartheid years, was a regionally destabilizing influence, but there was no DMZ, no troops on hair-trigger alert, no nuclear arsenals in play. Also, a strong movement inside South Africa supported an Olympic boycott as part of an international anti-apartheid movement.

At the time, the Heritage Foundation was not particularly enamored of the strategies proposed by this movement, preferring instead a policy of “constructive engagement” in which trade and investment in South Africa would eventually erode the apartheid system. Fortunately, the anti-apartheid movement didn’t listen to Heritage.

On the Korean peninsula, meanwhile, the risk of catastrophic war is high — whether by design or by accident. Yes, North Korea’s human rights violations are egregious. But as with the Soviet Union during the arms control era or Iran and the nuclear agreement, the nuclear risk justifies an exclusive focus on averting war. So, if inviting North Korea to the Winter Olympics can help create an environment of greater trust and engagement that can then lead all parties back to the negotiating table, it’s a worthwhile effort.

Given the lack of a movement within North Korea demanding a boycott — indeed, given the lack of virtually any non-governmental organizations inside the country — the “constructive engagement” arguments are more applicable to the Kim Jong Un regime than they ever were for apartheid South Africa.

In The Atlantic, Robert Carlin and Joel Wit offer three important examples of such engagement that the Trump administration could follow in order to build on the new inter-Korean momentum: make it easier for humanitarian organizations to operate inside North Korea, lift travel restrictions on North Korean diplomats in New York, and ask Pyongyang to grant access for Swedish diplomats (who represent American interests there) to visit the three Americans still held in North Korea.

So, let’s recap. North Korea offers to talk with South Korea and participate in the Winter Olympics. Sure, its trying to create some distance between Washington and Seoul. But that’s normal geopolitics — as opposed to the exchange of threats to launch a nuclear war. Instead of worrying about “wedges,” pundits should be overjoyed that North Korea is using its words not its weapons.

Let the Games and the next round of talks begin!

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North Korea: The Costs of War, Calculated

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(Photo: Shutterstock)

Donald Trump is contemplating wars that would dwarf anything that his immediate predecessors ever considered.

He has dropped the mother of all bombs in Afghanistan, and he’s considering the mother of all wars in the Middle East. He is abetting Saudi Arabia’s devastating war in Yemen. Many evangelicals are welcoming his announcement of U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as a sign that the end of days is nigh. The conflict with Iran is about to heat up early next year when Trump, in the absence of any congressional action, will decide whether to fulfill his promise to tear up the nuclear agreement that the Obama administration worked so hard to negotiate and the peace movement backed with crucial support.

But no war has acquired quite the same apparent inevitability as the conflict with North Korea. Here in Washington, pundits and policymakers are talking about a “three-month window” within which the Trump administration can stop North Korea from acquiring the capability to strike U.S. cities with nuclear weapons.

That estimate allegedly comes from the CIA, though the messenger is the ever-unreliable John Bolton, the former flame-thrower of a U.S. ambassador to the UN. Bolton has used that estimate to make the case for a preemptive attack on North Korea, a plan that Trump has also reportedly taken very seriously.

North Korea, too, has announced that war is “an established fact.” After the most recent U.S.-South Korean military exercises in the region, a spokesperson from the Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang said, “The remaining question now is: when will the war break out?”

This aura of inevitability should put prevention of conflict with North Korea at the top of the urgent to-do list of all international institutions, engaged diplomats, and concerned citizens.

A warning about the costs of war may not convince people who want Kim Jong Un and his regime out regardless of consequences (and nearly half of Republicans already support a preemptive strike). But a preliminary estimate of the human, economic, and environmental costs of a war should make enough people think twice, lobby hard against military actions by all sides, and support legislative efforts to prevent Trump from launching a preemptive strike without congressional approval.

Such an estimate of the various impacts can also serve as a basis for three movements — anti-war, economic justice, and environmental — to come together in opposition to what would set back our causes, and the world at large, for generations to come.

It’s not the first time the United States has been on the verge of making an extraordinary mistake. Can the costs of the last war help us avoid the next one?

Doomed to Repeat?

If Americans had known how much the Iraq War was going to cost, perhaps they wouldn’t have gone along with the Bush administration’s march to war. Perhaps Congress would have put up more of a fight.

Invasion boosters predicted that the war would be a “cakewalk.” It wasn’t. About 25,000 Iraqi civilians died as a result of the initial invasion and about 2,000 coalition forces died up through 2005. But that was just the beginning. By 2013, another 100,000 Iraq civilians had died because of ongoing violence, according to the conservative estimates of the Iraq Body Count, along with another 2,800 coalition forces (mostly American).

Then there were the economic costs. Before it blundered into Iraq, the Bush administration projected that the war would only cost around $ 50 billion. That was wishful thinking. The real accounting only came later.

My colleagues at the Institute for Policy Studies estimated in 2005 that the bill for the Iraq war would ultimately come in at $ 700 billion. In their 2008 book The Three Trillion Dollar War, Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes provided an even higher estimate, which they later revised further upwards toward $ 5 trillion.

The body counts and the more accurate economic estimates had a profound impact on how Americans viewed the Iraq War. Public support for the war was around 70 percent at the time of the 2003 invasion. In 2002, the congressional resolution authorizing military force against Iraq passed the House 296 to 133 and the Senate 77-23.

By 2008, however, American voters were supporting Barack Obama’s candidacy in part because of his opposition to the invasion. Many of these people who supported the war — a majority of the Senate, former neoconservative Francis Fukuyama — were saying that if they knew in 2003 what they subsequently learned about the war, they would have taken a different position.

In 2016, not a few people supported Donald Trump for his purported skepticism about recent U.S. military campaigns. As a Republican presidential candidate, Trump declared the Iraq War a mistake and even pretended that he’d never supported the invasion. It was part of his effort to distance himself from hawks within his own party and the “globalists” in the Democratic Party. Some libertarians even supported Trump as the “anti-war” candidate.

Trump is now shaping up to be quite the opposite. He is escalating U.S. involvement in Syria, surging in Afghanistan, and expanding the use of drones in the “war on terror.”

But the looming conflict with North Korea is of an entirely different order of magnitude. The anticipated costs are so high that outside of Donald Trump himself, the most resolute of his hawkish followers, and a few overseas supporters like Japan’s Shinzo Abe, war remains an unpopular option. And yet, both North Korea and the United States are on a collision course, propelled by the logic of escalation and subject to the errors of miscalculation.

By making sure that the probable costs of a war with North Korea are well known, however, it is still possible to persuade the U.S. government to step back from the brink.

The Human Costs

A nuclear exchange between the United States and North Korea would go off the charts in terms of lives lost, economies wrecked, and the environment destroyed.

In his apocalyptic scenario in The Washington Post, arms control specialist Jeffrey Lewis imagines that, after widespread conventional U.S. bombing of the country, North Korea launches a dozen nuclear weapons at the United States. Despite some errant targeting and a half-effective missile defense system, the attack still manages to kill a million people in New York alone and another 300,000 around Washington, DC. Lewis concludes:

The Pentagon would make almost no effort to tally the enormous numbers of civilians killed in North Korea by the massive conventional air campaign. But in the end, officials concluded, nearly 2 million Americans, South Koreans, and Japanese had died in the completely avoidable nuclear war of 2019.

If North Korea uses nuclear weapons closer to home, the death toll would be much higher: over two million dead in Seoul and Tokyo alone, according to a detailed estimate at 38North.

The human costs of a conflict with North Korea would be staggering even if nuclear weapons never enter the picture and the U.S. homeland never comes under attack. Back in 1994, when Bill Clinton was contemplating a preemptive strike on North Korea, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea told the president that the result would probably be a million dead in and around the Korean peninsula.

Today, the Pentagon estimates that 20,000 people would die each day of such a conventional conflict. That’s based on the fact that 25 million people live in and around Seoul, which is within distance of North Korea’s long-range artillery pieces, 1,000 of which are located just north of the Demilitarized Zone.

The casualties would not just be Korean. There are also about 38,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, plus another 100,000 other Americans living in the country. So, a war just confined to the Korean peninsula would be the equivalent of putting at risk the number of Americans living in a city the size of Syracuse or Waco.

And this Pentagon estimate is cautious. The more common forecast is more than 100,000 dead in the first 48 hours. Even this latter number doesn’t factor in the use of chemical warheads, in which case the casualties would quickly rise into the millions (despite some overheated speculation, there is no evidence that North Korea has yet developed biological weapons).

In any such war scenario, North Korean civilians would also die in large numbers, just as huge numbers of Iraqi and Afghan civilians died during those conflicts. In a letter solicited by Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Ruben Gallego (D-A), the Joint Chiefs of Staff made clear that a ground invasion would be necessary to locate and destroy all nuclear facilities. That would increase the number of both U.S. and North Korean casualties.

Bottom line: Even a war limited to conventional weapons and to the Korean peninsula would result in, at minimum, tens of thousands dead and more likely casualties closer to a million.

Economic Costs

It’s somewhat more difficult to estimate the economic costs of any conflict on the Korean peninsula. Again, any war involving nuclear weapons would cause incalculable economic damage. So, let’s use the more conservative estimate associated with a conventional war that’s restricted to Korea alone.

Any estimates must take into account the economically advanced nature of South Korean society. According to GDP projections for 2017, South Korea is the 12th largest economy in the world, just behind Russia. Moreover, Northeast Asia is the most economically dynamic region of the world. A war on the Korean peninsula would devastate the economies of China, Japan, and Taiwan as well. The global economy would take a significant hit.

Writes Anthony Fensom in The National Interest:

A 50 percent fall in South Korea’s GDP could knock a percentage point off global GDP, while there would also be substantial disruptions to trade flows.

South Korea is heavily integrated into regional and global manufacturing supply chains, which would be severely disrupted by any major conflict. Capital Economics sees Vietnam as the worst affected, since it sources around 20 percent of its intermediate goods from South Korea, but China sources over 10 percent, while a number of other Asian neighbors would be affected.

Also consider the additional costs of the refugee flow. Germany alone spent over $ 20 billion for refugee resettlement in 2016. The outflow from North Korea, a country somewhat more populous than Syria was in 2011, could be likewise in the millions if a civil war erupts, a famine ensues, or the state collapses. China is already building refugee camps on its border with North Korea — just in case. Both China and South Korea have had difficulty accommodating the defector outflow as it is — and that’s only around 30,000 in the South and something similar in China.

Now let’s look at the specific costs to the United States. The cost of military operations in Iraq — Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn — was $ 815 billion from 2003 though 2015, which includes military operations, reconstruction, training, foreign aid, and veterans’ health benefits.

In terms of military operations, the United States is up against, on paper, a North Korean army three times what Saddam Hussein fielded in 2003. Again, on paper, North Korea has more sophisticated weaponry as well. The soldiers, however, are malnourished, there’s a shortage of fuel for the bombers and tanks, and many systems lack spare parts. Pyongyang has pursued a nuclear deterrent in part because it is now at such a disadvantage in terms of conventional weapons compared to South Korea (not to mention U.S. forces in the Pacific). It’s therefore possible that an initial assault might yield the same results as the first salvo in the Iraq War.

But however brutal the Kim Jong Un regime is, the population would not likely welcome American soldiers with open arms. An insurgency comparable to what took place after the Iraq War would likely arise, which would end up costing the United States even further loss of life and money.

But even in the absence of an insurgency, the costs of the military operation will be dwarfed by the costs of reconstruction. Reconstruction costs for South Korea, a major industrialized country, would be much higher than in Iraq or certainly Afghanistan. The United States spent about $ 60 billion initially for post-war reconstruction in Iraq (much of it wasted through corruption), and the bill for liberating the country from the Islamic State runs closer to $ 150 billion.

Add to that the monumental costs of rehabilitating North Korea, which under the best circumstances would cost at least $ 1 trillion (the estimated costs of reunification) but which would balloon up to $ 3 trillion in the aftermath of a devastating war. Ordinarily, South Korea would be expected to cover these costs, but not if that country too had been devastated by war.

Spending on the military campaign and on post-conflict reconstruction would push U.S. federal debt into the stratosphere. The opportunity costs — the funds that could have been spent on infrastructure, education, health care — would be enormous as well. The war would likely put America into receivership.

Bottom line: Even a limited war with North Korea would directly cost the United States more than $ 1 trillion in terms of military operations and reconstruction, and considerably more indirectly because of setbacks to the global economy.

Environmental Costs

In terms of environmental impact, a nuclear war would be catastrophic. Even a relatively limited nuclear exchange could trigger a significant drop in global temperatures — because of debris and soot thrown into the air that blocks the sun — which would throw global food production into crisis.

If the United States tries to take out North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities, particularly those buried beneath the ground, it will be sorely tempted to use nuclear weapons first. “The ability to take out the North Korean nuclear program is limited, with conventional weapons,” explains retired U.S. Air Force General Sam Gardiner. Instead, the Trump administration would turn to “hard-target-kill” weapons fired from nuclear submarines near the Korean peninsula.

Even if North Korea is unable to retaliate, these preemptive strikes carry their own risks of mass casualties. The release of radiation — or lethal agents, in the case of strikes on chemical weapons repositories — could kill millions and render large tracts of land uninhabitable depending on a number of factors (yield, depth of explosion, weather conditions), according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Even a conventional war fought exclusively on the Korean peninsula would have devastating environmental consequences. A conventional aerial attack on North Korea, followed by retaliatory strikes against South Korea, would end up contaminating large tracts of territory around energy and chemical complexes and destroy fragile ecosystems (such as the bio-diverse Demilitarized Zone). If North Korea managed to hit any of the 24 nuclear reactors in the south, the radiation effects would be considerable even if meltdown didn’t occur (and catastrophic if it did). The use of depleted uranium weapons by the United States, as it did in 2003, would also cause widespread environmental and health damage.

Bottom line: Any war on the Korean peninsula would have a devastating impact on the environment, but efforts to take out North Korea’s nuclear complex or South Korea’s nuclear reactors would be potentially catastrophic.

Preventing War

There would be other costs of war associated with an attack on North Korea. Given the opposition to war of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the United States would strain its alliance with that country to the breaking point. The Trump administration would deal a blow to international law as well as international institutions such as the United Nations. It would encourage other countries to push diplomacy aside and pursue military “solutions” in their regions of the world.

Even before the Trump administration took office, the costs of war worldwide were unacceptably high. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, the world spends over $ 13 trillion a year on conflict, which works out to about 13 percent of global GDP.

If the United States goes to war with North Korea, it will throw all of those calculations out the window. There has never been a war between nuclear powers. There hasn’t been an all-out war in such an economically prosperous region for decades. The human, economic, and environmental costs will be staggering.

This war isn’t inevitable.

The North Korean leadership knows that, because it faces overwhelming force, any conflict is literally suicidal. The Pentagon also recognizes that, because the risk of casualties to U.S. troops and U.S. allies is so high, a war is not in the U.S. national interest. Secretary of Defense James Mattis acknowledges that a war with North Korea would be no cakewalk and, indeed, would be “catastrophic.”

Even the Trump administration’s own strategic review of the North Korean problem didn’t include military intervention or regime change as recommendations alongside maximum pressure and diplomatic engagement. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has recently said that Washington is open to talks with Pyongyang “without preconditions,” an important shift in negotiating tactics.

Perhaps during this holiday season, Donald Trump will be visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Future. The ghost from the past will remind him once again of the avoidable tragedies of the Iraq War. The ghost from the future will show him the ruined landscape of the Korean peninsula, the vast cemeteries of the dead, the devastated U.S. economy, and the compromised global environment.

As for the ghost of Christmas Present, the ghost who carries an empty and rusted scabbard and who represents peace on earth, we are that ghost. It is incumbent on the peace, economic justice, and environmental movements to make ourselves heard, to remind the U.S. president and his hawkish supporters of the costs of any future conflict, to press for diplomatic solutions, and to throw sand in the gears of the war machine.

We tried and failed to prevent the Iraq War. We still have a chance to prevent a second Korean War.

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How to Successfully Engage North Korea On Human Rights

UN Special Rapporteur Catalina Devandas Aguilar on a site visit in the DPRK in May 2017 (Uriminzokkiri)

North Korea has the worst human rights record of any country in the world, except perhaps Eritrea and Syria. There is, however, a curious exception to this record: disability rights. This case offers a powerful counter-example of successful engagement in an arena where the country normally experiences nothing but universal condemnation.

For nearly two decades, outside NGOs have been working with Pyongyang to improve conditions for the nearly two million people with disabilities in the country. Over the course of this engagement, North Korea has altered its conduct in three important ways: It has cooperated with the United Nations to bring its disability policies more in line with international standards,  has permitted the growth of the very first shoots of civil society focused on the rights of the disabled,  and has allowed more contact between its citizens with disabilities and the outside world.

At a time when tensions between North Korea and the international community have increased dramatically and the United States in particular has pushed to isolate the regime even further, can this kind of engagement become the new normal?

Dealing with the UN System

It’s not easy to visit North Korea if you work on human rights. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has repeatedly rejected the requests of UN human rights officials to tour the country. Even the three people who have served as the special rapporteur for human rights in the DRPK over the last 13 years have had to write their reports without ever setting foot in the country.

This past May, Catalina Devandas Aguilar became the first independent expert designated by the UN Human Rights Council to visit North Korea. Devandas Aguilar is the UN’s first special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities. Not only did she meet with a wide range of North Koreans during her trip, but she received virtual celebrity coverage in the country’s media.

“Just the fact that a woman with a disability from Costa Rica is seen on national television in the DPRK running around on a scooter and being very modern and talking brings a different perspective and even hope to persons with disabilities in a country that has been in such isolation,” Devandas Aguilar said.

The United States has generally viewed the UN human rights system as another stick with which to beat North Korea. The Obama administration, for instance, supported the UN-established Commission of Inquiry (COI) and the conclusion, in its 2014 report, was that the leadership of the country committed crimes against humanity (among other transgressions). In the wake of the report, the Obama administration also imposed its first human-rights-related sanctions against the DPRK.

North Korea has signed the UN convention on the rights of the disabled. The otherwise scathing COI report barely mentions disability rights, other than to urge ratification of the convention, which North Korea did this last December. It also notes that “there are signs that the State may have begun to address this particular issue” of discrimination against the disabled—one of the few signs of progress in the report.

By signing the convention on the rights of the disabled—as well as those on women and on children—the DPRK has committed to submitting regular reports and interacting with various UN human rights personnel. In this way, it learns both the language and the substance of human rights practice. Whether it translates that knowledge into practice is another matter.

“While we welcome the engagement, writing reports is not progress on the ground and we haven’t seen any real improvement in women or children rights yet from this renewed willingness to deal with the UN treaty bodies,” cautions Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

Sonja Biserko, a Serbian human rights expert who was one of the three experts on the commission, believes that the DPRK’s divergent approaches to the UN human rights system are actually related. “The release of the COI report had an enormous impact worldwide, and the DPRK was aware of that,” she says. “For the first time the human rights situation was revealed to the world in a very comprehensive way, and it was shocking. Because of that, they invested effort in improving their image by signing the convention on disabilities.”

But even before the COI report, North Korea was moving in the direction of engagement on disability rights and, arguably, showing “progress on the ground.”

Signs of a Civil Society?

North Korea is one of the few countries in the world without any significant civil society. It lacks public dissidents, opposition parties, even non-governmental organizations (NGOs). When President Obama made a commitment to meet with civil society representatives around the world, even in places like Cuba, North Korea was not on the list. There was no one in North Korea with whom he could meet.

Engagement on disability rights, however, has produced some perhaps unexpected results. Foreign organizations working on disability issues inside the DPRK cooperate with the Korean Federation for the Protection of the Disabled (KFPD), an organization that bills itself as an NGO though it functions more like a government agency. However, the Federation, which started up in the late 1990s, has encouraged the creation of groups run by the disabled to advocate for themselves.

The Federation, Devandas-Aguilar points out, “promotes the creation of groups of women with disabilities, also deaf people and blind people, which they call associations. Those associations seem to be more independent from the Federation and from the government. These groups deal with income-generation activities. They are dealing with sports, with arts.”

The US government, through its funding of the National Endowment for Democracy, has devoted considerable resources to supporting operations that beam information into North Korea via radio broadcasts and other means—to expose North Koreans to news of the outside world.

Yet, without any US government assistance, organizing around disability rights has brought quite a few North Koreans in contact with foreigners. Handicapped International has been working in the country since 2001, collaborating with the KFPD in the field of prosthetics and physical rehabilitation. The World Federation of the Deaf maintains an office in Pyongyang staffed by a fourth-generation deaf German, Robert Grund, who has helped popularize sign language services and greater educational opportunities for the deaf.

Kathi Zellweger has been traveling back and forth to North Korea since 1995, first with the Catholic charity Caritas Internationalis and now with her own NGO based in Hong Kong. In December 2016, her organization brought four North Korean women to Hong Kong for 10 days “to expose them to a wide variety of services for intellectually challenged children.” The key task was to provide training in assessment. “Once you have assessed children properly,” she continues, “then you can design for each child the needs for health, education, and how you work with parents and caregivers.”

Over her more than 20 years of work in the DPRK, Zellweger has witnessed a change in attitudes inside the country. “Up to a few years ago, you would see very few people with disabilities in the streets,” she observes. “Now that has changed. You see more people in wheelchairs, on crutches, parents with special needs children.” She credits the KFPD with helping to transform public attitudes, but it’s also a function of relationships established with outsiders.

“Every year, the country celebrates the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, with a lot of local officials attending,” Zellweger notes. “It’s a big thing. We suggested that they should include special needs children. When I was there the next year, they had a small group of special needs children performing. Sometimes you just need to give them some ideas of what to do.”

That some of the people affiliated with the nascent civil society around disability rights have travelled outside North Korea is unusual for a country that rarely grants permission to travel abroad for anyone other than a government official, an athlete, or a guest worker. More unusual still, some North Korean teenagers with disabilities have even made the trip. In 2015, a youth ensemble of two blind musicians, two amputee vocalists, and eight dancers with hearing impairment traveled to the United Kingdom and France at the invitation of the UK-based organization DULA International. This Para-Ensemble returned for another tour this year.

It wasn’t easy to make the visit happen. “With disability welfare and awareness still in its developmental stages, many North Koreans at first felt that this young, disabled group of performers were not the country’s best representatives,” explains DULA International’s director, Lee Seok-Hee. After considerable persuading, the DPRK government agreed and cooperated.

The exchange, in turn, had a transformative impact. “Whereas the DPRK public—and even the Para-Ensemble performers—largely misunderstood issues of disability before the tour, awareness of disability grew following it,” Lee continues. “Performances of the first tour, and the reception of international audience, were aired on national TV in the DPRK. This led an increasing number of people contacting the KFPD and inquiring about how they could get involved.”

Moving Forward

Although North Korea has had laws on the books related to people with disabilities going back to the 1990s, it has stepped up its activities in the last few years. The first North Korean Paralympic athlete, for instance, participated in the 2012 games in London. The KFPD has been releasing periodic disability surveys. And the government has allowed disability organizations from around the world to partner with the KFPD.

Given the opacity of the North Korean government, it’s not easy to figure out definitively why it treats disability rights differently than it does many other human rights issues. But observers can make some educated guesses.

“First of all, progress on the disability issue is not a threat to the regime,” points out Robert King, former US special envoy for the issue of North Korean human rights from 2009 to 2017. “It’s not like freedom of speech or access to television from South Korea. It’s not going to undermine the claims of legitimacy of the government.”

King also suspects that people high up in the regime have children or siblings with disabilities. In China, for instance, the disability issue acquired a much higher profile when Deng Pufang, the son of former premier Deng Xiaoping, actively promoted it. A paraplegic thanks to an assault by militant Revolutionary Guards during the Cultural Revolution, Deng Pufang established the China Welfare Fund for the Disabled in 1984 and won a UN human rights award for his work in 2003. “A few people like that could make an appeal to the leadership and have some effect in getting some programs to benefit the disabled,” King says.

The overall human rights situation inside North Korea remains dire. Some North Korean defectors dispute that the government has changed its policies at all, and rumors abound of horrific treatment. Some experts on human rights in North Korea also argue that advocacy of disability rights is largely cosmetic.

“I’ve spoken with many UN officials, and I don’t think anyone is under any illusion of a dramatic sea change in North Korean human rights,” says Greg Scarlatoiu, the executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. The country has ignored other issues, he points out, such as “the terrible things done to political prisoners in the camps, the utter lack of freedom of expression, freedom of association, any conceivable human right. But in this case, they selected [disability rights] as a point of contact where they can make some cosmetic changes and get away with it—or who knows, perhaps go a little deeper and make some serious changes and see where it takes them.”

However, organizing international support for human rights in North Korea around disability rights demonstrates that engagement can yield positive benefits for North Koreans and still advance certain US goals. It’s also a good example of how human rights work can promote more connections with the international community rather than fewer. “Especially in the current context of escalating tensions, the human rights system needs to put its energy into promoting dialog and discussion,” says the UN’s Devandas Aguilar. “That is the only way forward to avoid armed conflict or confrontation.”

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Disarmament Shouldn’t be a Precondition for Negotiations with North Korea

donald-trump-kim-jong-un-north-korea

(Image: Robin Atzeni / Shutterstock)

“We have to acknowledge that North Korea isn’t going to give up its nuclear capability as a precondition for negotiations,” foreign policy expert John Feffer said on Intercepted, “Why on Earth would they?”

North Korea’s nuclear ambition is best contextualized in history. Following the separation of the Koreas, both countries adopted different political-economic systems.

South Korea became more deeply embedded into the global economy and North Korea turned inward—a dichotomy that set the two countries off onto wildly divergent economic outcomes.

“It’s really exaggerated or aggravated by the collapse of communism,” Feffer said. When cheaply-supplied oil from the Soviet Union stopped entering North Korea, its agricultural and industrial capacity collapsed.

By 1995, a series of natural disasters set off a multi-year period of famine the country has yet to recover from.

“It was necessary for North Korea to find some other fuel source,” Feffer says, tying its nuclear ambition to its oil crisis. “But there was a military component as well.”

Not only was the South Korean economy flourishing in this time period, but its military capability was bolstered by American technological aid.

“North Korea fell behind rather rapidly. To level the playing field,” Feffer said, nuclear capability was seen as a cheap way of “coming up to speed.”

It also provided deterrence against “any possible U.S. intervention—either bombing or actual physical intervention into the country.”

“If they had not developed nuclear weapons. North Korea probably would not exist today.”

In contemporary diplomatic relations, Feffer argued, “We have to come up with different kinds of security guarantees in the process of negotiating with North Korea. We also have to acknowledge  that they’re not going to give away nuclear capability after a week of negotiations.”

“It’s going to take a while for this trust-building exercise to have any kind of impact,” Feffer said.

Listen to the full interview on Intercepted.

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Tobacco Farms Exploit Child Labor in North Carolina – AlterNet

Tobacco Farms Exploit Child Labor in North Carolina
AlterNet
A recent audit commissioned by the tobacco company found that 40 percent of its contractor farms employed under age workers, therefore violating the Federal law on child labor, including 16 percent of minors under the age of 16 were illegally

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Tobacco Farms Exploit Child Labor in North Carolina – AlterNet

Tobacco Farms Exploit Child Labor in North Carolina
AlterNet
A recent audit commissioned by the tobacco company found that 40 percent of its contractor farms employed under age workers, therefore violating the Federal law on child labor, including 16 percent of minors under the age of 16 were illegally

and more »

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Tobacco Farms Exploit Child Labor in North Carolina – AlterNet

Tobacco Farms Exploit Child Labor in North Carolina
AlterNet
A recent audit commissioned by the tobacco company found that 40 percent of its contractor farms employed under age workers, therefore violating the Federal law on child labor, including 16 percent of minors under the age of 16 were illegally

and more »

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Tobacco Farms Exploit Child Labor In North Carolina – Mintpress News (blog)


Mintpress News (blog)
Tobacco Farms Exploit Child Labor In North Carolina
Mintpress News (blog)
A recent audit commissioned by the tobacco company found that 40 percent of its contractor farms employed under age workers, therefore violating the Federal law on child labor, including 16 percent of minors under the age of 16 were illegally

and more »

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North Korea fires rocket seen as covert missile test – USA TODAY


USA TODAY
North Korea fires rocket seen as covert missile test
USA TODAY
Secretary of State John Kerry called Sunday's test "a major provocation" that threatens the security of the region and the United States and said the U.S. would work with members of the U.N. Security Council on "significant measures" to hold North

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Tobacco Farms Exploit Child Labor In North Carolina – Mintpress News (blog)


Mintpress News (blog)
Tobacco Farms Exploit Child Labor In North Carolina
Mintpress News (blog)
A recent audit commissioned by the tobacco company found that 40 percent of its contractor farms employed under age workers, therefore violating the Federal law on child labor, including 16 percent of minors under the age of 16 were illegally

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