According to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kenneth Bae, an American citizen of Korean descent, is serving a 15-year sentence of hard labor for alleged ‘crimes against the state’. The detention and sentencing of Mr. Bae, a tour operator, in late 2012 and early 2013 heightened ever-present concerns about human rights abuse by the DPRK government.
Now, a year into Mr. Bae’s sentence, the US State department has again announced that its envoy to North Korea for human rights issues, Ambassador Robert King, may visit the country.
If Ambassador King successfully negotiates for the release of Mr. Bae, the US media will no doubt celebrate the US success in saving a man who suffered horrific human rights violations. Releasing Mr. Bae, however, would not be a real victory for the United States.
Kenneth Bae is not the first American to be held hostage by Pyongyang, and certainly will not be the last. Recent releases have come only when dignitaries like former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have flown to North Korea to secure the release of American journalists and missionaries. Some argue these trips have helped open dialogue with North Korea, eventually allowing globalization to force regime change or at least reinstate peace talks. The idea that visits by Messrs. Clinton and Carter have fundamentally changed the DPRK, however, is a fantasy.
High-profile visits—whether by politicians, or, more recently, errant basketball stars—simply strengthen the North Korean regime. DPRK media spins conversations, photo shoots, and tours to demonstrate power to a captive audience at home. Speaking on former NBA hall-of-famer Dennis Rodman’s last visit to the communist country, Ed Royce, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee said: “This basketball game will do nothing to improve the abysmal human rights conditions in North Korea. It’s a propaganda win for the regime.”
A trip by Ambassador King, if it materializes, will likely be no different. North Korea released a video of Bae in January commenting on his fragile health requesting the United States to visit. If anything, it is a plea for concessions and propaganda material. Moreover, after the latest UN report on North Korea’s human rights abuses, we must remember that Kenneth Bae is not the only man suffering in North Korea. In this case, one step forward very well may be followed by one thousand steps back.
Besides, there are issues of greater importance that complicate international concerns about human rights violations. Especially from the US perspective, these violations cannot distract from the nuclear program of an increasingly aggressive North Korea.
The United States’ efforts to disarm North Korea have largely been in vain. In spite of US and UN sanctions, Pyongyang has blatantly disobeyed international protocol. Since 6-party denuclearization talks ended in 2009 and a South Korean warship mysteriously sank in 2010, the situation has only worsened. Combined with a satellite launch into orbit in the winter of 2012 which underscored the threat of North Korean ICBMs and spring 2013 threats towards the US and South Korea Pyongyang has made clear it is not working toward disarmament.
The US has not succeeded at denuclearizing North Korea. The efforts of presidents and sanctions can be summarized in Dennis Rodman’s drunken farce: well-intended but embarrassingly ineffective. Having failed on two fronts, neither reducing human rights violations nor preventing nuclear proliferation, the US should return to the drawing board.
Kenneth Bae’s release is unequivocally good in terms of protecting the rights of American citizens abroad and saving him, as an individual, from further human rights abuses at the hands of the DPRK. Doing right by one man, however, does not lessen the challenges faced by US diplomats or improve the abominable human rights situation in the DPRK.