Humanising denuclearisation: Australia’s position on North Korea

14 Mar 2019
By Cheyeanne Henderson-Watkins
Humanising denuclearisation: Australia’s position on North Korea
In the diplomatic pecking order, human rights are sometimes considered secondary to concerns over international security.

Recent relations with North Korea provide no exception to this narrative.

Despite multiple high level meetings between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un, little has been done to curb the rampant abuse taking place within the previous Hermit Kingdom’s borders. As a committed advocate for human rights both at home and abroad, Australia has an obligation to ensure such matters do not slip under the radar. An overview of the current international climate towards North Korea’s worrying human rights record can give insight into what Australia can do more to support the international community in working towards the best outcome.

An Alarming History of Unforgivable Crimes

The world received a rude awakening to the Kim regime’s misuse of power in 2014 after the release of the United Nations Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Led by former High Court justice Michael Kirby, it cited numerous incidents that constituted crimes against humanity including arbitrary detention and torture within state prison camps, religious and political persecution, and forced abductions of foreign nationals.

After urging the United Nations to consider adopting more effective human rights based targeted sanctions against North Korea, UN sanctions still remain solely directed at securing a denuclearised state. Other UN member states have also shown support for these measures but have not incorporated them into their own sanctions framework, leaving the matter in limbo.

In North Korea’s case, denuclearisation and human rights are intrinsically linked. According to The Walk Free Foundation’s annual Global Slavery Index, The DPRK are cited as having the worst level of forced labour in the world. Most of revenue earned is then often diverted from essentials such as food to fund the nation’s nuclear program.  Significant risks also exist to international travellers wanting to make use of the nation’s increased tolerance for tourism, the most high profile testament to these risks being the detainment and subsequent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier.

The direct use of state funds to finance nuclear ambitions at the expense of its citizens is indicative of how economic prosperity is not an adequate incentive for North Korea to lay down its weapons. The people of North Korea have limited – if any – exposure to the concept of civil liberties, and as such it cannot be expected that the nation’s citizens will be capable of solving this problem without outside help.

Do Australia’s Sanctions Target Human Rights?

In regards to the human rights front, Australia’s own measures have room for improvement.
On the one hand, the show of support for the denuclearisation effort has been strong. Reaffirming Australia’s commitment, former Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop commented on Australia’s willingness to aid the US in the technical aspects of denuclearisation after the Singapore Summit, but did not include mention of the nation’s position on human rights. Malcolm Turnbull also expressed similar sentiments in March last year, and the current Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne vowed to assist allies Japan and the US in denuclearisation negotiations.

Commitment to this stance has been followed through with aid suspensions to the DPRK that have been directly tied to anxieties over the diversion of funds for proliferation activities and a lack of access by humanitarian agents. Considering this, sanctions are almost exclusively concerned with North Korea’s nuclear security risk. Though Australia does currently have targeted financial sanctions against a number of North Korean nationals, the designated individuals have been listed due to their association with nuclear proliferation, not human rights abuses.

The government supports the UN Commission’s findings, but are yet to enact legislation in line with the report’s recommendations. Although Australia is gravely concerned over the claims of abuse, concern simply on its own does not contribute to meaningful change.

Reconsidering the Australian approach

There are lessons Australia can learn from the US. As a welcome response, the US Treasury sanctioned three more North Korean nationals in December for connection to human rights violations – the only country to do so. This recent revival by the Trump administration of human rights based targeted sanctions provide positive indicators of a shift in focus towards reintegrating a human rights narrative into negotiations, even at the cost of provoking North Korean officials.

This is not too dissimilar from Australia’s own sanctions against Myanmar in 2018. After the UN had found instances of crimes against humanity having been committed, targeted financial sanctions and travel bans against military officials on the basis of human rights abuses were unilaterally imposed. However, setting verifiable improvements in human rights as a precondition to a relief in sanctions is the most significant aspect of the US approach, and one that Australia should seek to replicate.

Finding the Right Balance - No Rewards without Risk

Australia stands to gain considerable benefit by taking tentative steps towards what could be considered a forbidden topic.

Negotiations for denuclearisation are already in motion, and financial pressures from Australia still hold firm. If human rights is regarded as a cause for contention within discussions, then it is logical to assume a more effective home for it would be within already existing sanctions frameworks.

If Australia is committed to assisting the US, they can begin with supporting targeted sanctions. In doing so, Australia has the ability to indicate to the international community that they are sincere in their commitment to international human rights obligations. By recognising the significance of the UN report’s findings through action, it will demonstrate they are willing to support and encourage the US as an ally in their attempts to keep the Kim regime accountable. Australia is yet to re-establish formal diplomatic relations with North Korea, and it is in their best interest to do so on the right terms.

Normalisation will be impossible if trust is not established, and the protection and freedom of the DPRK’s own citizens will be an indicator to the world that they are willing to respect the lives of others.  Without this, there are no guarantees that another Warmbier incident will not happen again.


Cheyeanne Henderson-Watkins
Cheyeanne Henderson-Watkins
Cheyeanne Henderson-Watkins was an intern at the Perth USAsia centre and is a recent Bachelor of Arts graduate, having undertaken a double major in Political Science & International Relations and Korean Studies at the University of Western Australia.
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