Blinken Slams North Korea Over Human Rights in Debut Asia Trip

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized North Korea for massive human rights abuses at the start of a visit to Seoul, bringing up a subject typically met by Pyongyang with a heated rebuke and marking a change in tone from President Donald Trump’s administration.

The comments Wednesday, during Blinken’s first trip abroad since taking the post of President Joe Biden’s top envoy, come as the U.S. adjusts its strategy toward Pyongyang and tries to smooth ties with long-time ally South Korea.

“The regime in North Korea continues to commit systemic and widespread abuses against its own people,” Blinken said ahead of a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong.

Biden’s administration is recalibrating U.S. policies toward Pyongyang after predecessor Trump’s three summits with leader Kim Jong Un produced no tangible denuclearization and largely avoided touching on North Korea’s human rights record, long considered by the State Department as among the worst in the world.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has for the most part avoided mentioning human rights violations in relation to his neighbor to the north, a subject that could derail his policy of rapprochement. The Moon government has vowed to make efforts to improve the human rights situation, but it wants do so by improving ties with Kim first, rather than pressuring Pyongyang on the international stage.

North Korea has stepped up its use of forced labor from prison camps to mine coal for export so it can procure cash for its nuclear weapons program in defiance of United Nations sanctions, according to a report last month by the Citizens Alliance for North Korea Human Rights, a Seoul-based group that has participated in United Nations reviews of North Korea’s rights record.

Estimates of the total number of prisoners and detainees in the prison and detention system ranged between 80,000 and 120,000, according to the U.S. State Department, which said “conditions were harsh and life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, physical abuse.”

Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Seoul on Wednesday for talks with their counterparts, trying to better relations after Trump sought a five-fold increase from Seoul in the money it spends to help host American military personnel.

Prior to arriving in Seoul, the pair laid down a marker for China that the Biden administration intends to take a hard line toward Beijing.

“China uses coercion and aggression to systematically erode autonomy in Hong Kong, undercut democracy in Taiwan, abuse human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet, and assert maritime claims in the South China Sea that violate international law,” Blinken said in Tokyo Tuesday, on the first leg of the trip.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.