While in South Korea, Secretary of State John Kerry lambasted Pyongyang for its pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, flagrant disregard for international law, and human rights abuses. Kerry criticized the regime’s “provocative, destabilizing and repressive actions [and] unacceptable behavior.” To respond, Secretary Kerry declared international intent to “increase the pressure and increase the potential of either sanctions or other means” to alter Kim Jong-un’s behavior. Bold words calling for bold action.
But the Obama Administration has been pulling its punches toward North Korea by not even fully implementing existing U.S. law. President Obama claims North Korea “is the most isolated, the most sanctioned, the most cut-off nation on Earth.” That is simply not true. The U.S., the European Union, and the U.N. have imposed far more pervasive and compelling measures against Iran. Washington has targeted fewer North Korean entities than those of the Balkans, Burma, Cuba, Iran, and Zimbabwe. The U.S. has sanctioned more than twice as many Zimbabwean entities than it has North Korean entities.
Secretary Kerry rightfully described North Korea’s human rights abuses as “horrific [and] one of the most egregious examples of reckless disregard for human rights and for human beings anywhere on the planet.” He called for the international community to continue to “shed light on North Korea’s atrocities against its own people [and] ramp up international pressure.”
Yet, the Obama Administration has taken no action more than a year after the U.N. Commission of Inquiry concluded in February 2014 that Pyongyang had committed human rights violations so egregious as to qualify as crimes against humanity. In March 2015, the Obama Administration expressed “deep concern,” and in April 2015, the State Department vowed it was “reviewing options” over North Korean human rights violations. For years, the Obama Administration has vowed that it is contemplating additional sanctions measures—one policymaker even talked of “a list of bloodcurdling sanctions”—but instead pursued a policy of timid incrementalism.
To date, the United States has targeted zero—yes, zero—North Korean entities for human rights violations. By contrast, the U.S. has targeted Zimbabwe, Congo, and Burma for human rights violations. Washington sanctioned by name the presidents of Zimbabwe and Belarus but has yet to name Kim Jong-un or the heads of any of the North Korean organizations listed by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report.
During his speech at Korea University, Kerry also spoke of North Korea’s cyber attack on Sony Pictures and the U.S. sanctions imposed on Pyongyang in response. President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13687, which, though expansive in legal breadth, was only weakly implemented. The Administration targeted 13 North Korean entities, three organizations already on the U.S. sanctions list and 10 individuals not involved in cyber warfare. White House officials described January’s executive order as “a first step…this is certainly not the end,” but the Administration has yet to follow up with any additional measures.
A question to pose to Secretary Kerry: “Why does Washington hesitate to enforce U.S. law on North Korea to the same degree that it has on other countries that have committed far less egregious violations?” There are a number of measures that the Obama Administration could take against Pyongyang, as outlined in a previous Heritage Foundation study.