You Can Torture But Turn Your Centrifuges Off First

Can you hear the drumbeat of criticism from U.S.
officials against North Korea's appalling human rights
record? No? Me neither. In recent months there has
been virtually no attention paid to North Korea's
forced famines, its political gulags, or the flood of
refugees pouring from its borders. Sure, few Western
journalists get a glimpse of the Hermit Kingdom, but
the real reason for the lack of coverage is because of
the nuclear deal recently inked between Washington and
Pyongyang. Human rights almost always take a backseat
whenever the United States wants a regime to un-split
its atoms. In a recent speech before the Council on
Foreign Relations, Song Min-soon,
Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade,
mentioned human rights exactly zero times. "[M]any
human rights advocates say the reality is that
denuclearization talks have since crowded human rights
off the U.S.-North Korea agenda," writes Scott Snyder
of the Asia Foundation in Chosun-Ilbo,
a Korean publication (he admits it's not solely the
fault of the United States but "the lack of consensus
among the six parties to address human rights along
with nuclear issues." South Korea also shares blame,
writes Kay Seok of Human Rights Watch in the
International Herald Tribune.
President Roh Mu-hyun, a former human rights lawyer,
should distribute more food aid north of the border,
Seok writes.)

Case in point: the United States used to constantly
criticize Libya not just for its state sponsorship of
terrorism but also for its abysmal human rights
record. That was before Colonel Qaddafi came clean on
his nuclear aspirations and renounced his quest for
the bomb. But human rights are still in short supply
there. You just don't hear about their absence--Libya
was scrubbed from this year's State Dept list of human
rights offenders
--ostensibly
because Libya is now held up as a positive role model
for other wannabe nuclear powers. A number of Iranian
human rights activists fear a similar silence from
Washington once (if?) Iran ever fully forswears its
nuclear aspirations.

The trouble with this doublespeak from Washington is
it demonstrates the shallowness and myopia of American
foreign policy. We rail against human rights in Iran
when it suits our self-interests (i.e. to justify a
preemptive strike or find a scapegoat for our failings
in Iraq) but then go mum when rights abusers cut us
deals or previous scores are settled (Libya, for
instance, agreed to pay $2.7 billion to the families
of the 270 victims of the 1988 Lockerbie terrorist
attacks). When's the last time a senior White House
official said anything condemning Saudi Arabia,
Israel, or Pakistan's human rights record? Even
Chinese human rights were not on the agenda when
President Hu Jintao visited the White House last
April. Yet everyone, rightfully, jumped on the
bash-Burma bandwagon. It risks no political capital
for an American politician to condemn human rights
crackdowns there (No one up for reelection will lose
the pro-Burmese junta vote).

Meanwhile, our own human rights record gets thrown
back at our face, whenever we preach against their
abuse abroad. Russian President Vladimir Putin is fond
of pointing out that his benevolent country, unlike
the United States, has no capital punishment. Russian
soldiers and mercenaries are also not gunning down
innocents in Iraq (they're too busy doing that in
Chechnya). "[W]e know ourselves to be deeply
imperfect, "said Barry F. Lowenkron, assistant
secretary of state for human rights back in March.
That is an understatement if there ever was one. But
why not use Washington's newfound leverage with the
North Koreans (and others) to press them on their
human rights record?