President Trump must raise human rights concerns with Kim Jong Un
© Getty Images

While nuclear disarmament is expected to be the focus of the upcoming summit between the United States and North Korea on June 12 in Singapore, there is another significantly dangerous issue that should also have a place in the negotiations: the violation of nearly the full spectrum of human rights of the 25 million North Korean people by the government in Pyongyang. Protecting their human rights is no less important than getting a commitment from North Korea to denuclearize.

In a landmark report released in 2014, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry led by Australian Justice Michael Kirby found that the North Korean government has been committing systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights, including crimes against humanity “that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

ADVERTISEMENT
These abuses include a system of political prison camps that holds as many as 120,000 allegedly disloyal men, women and even children. Through a practice of ‘guilt by association,’ when a person is taken to these camps their entire family is also at risk of being seized. The judicial process is scant, if there is any at all; people are often simply ‘disappeared.’ Once in the camps, prisoners are forced to do very hard work in brutal conditions. They may be beaten, tortured and starved, and at risk of execution. They may even be killed.

North Koreans are also at risk of cradle-to-grave indoctrination supported by a vast network of internal security agents including apartment-complex managers. They are frequently denied the right to freedom of thought and religion, freedom of expression, and peaceful assembly. People who attempt to travel out of the country without prior permission can be considered treasonous , a crime punishable by execution.

But that doesn’t even scratch the surface. To understand the dire situation facing North Koreas, it’s important to keep in mind the government devised ‘Songbun’ system, which arbitrarily and rigidly stratifies the entire population into categories based on presumptions or fabrications of loyalty to the regime, social class or connections to elite families. A higher status means more education, better jobs, adequate food and health care. This means of course that the vast majority of people live with extreme difficulty. 

We cannot miss another opportunity to address human rights violations in North Korea. Before the summit became possible, President TrumpDonald John TrumpArizona GOP Senate candidate defends bus tour with far-right activist Alyssa Milano protests Kavanaugh in 'Handmaid's Tale' costume Bomb in deadly Yemen school bus attack was manufactured by US firm: report MORE referred to him as a vicious violator of human rights and his regime as “depraved.” Now he refers to Kim Jong Un as “very honorable,” and has given no direct indication that human rights will be addressed at the summit. This is a troubling but telling contradiction.

There is no doubt that President Trump’s dismal human rights records does not put him in the strongest position to encourage Kim Jong Un to improve conditions in North Korea. But it is still critical for these two leaders to hold a frank discussion about human rights. The stakes are high for the people of North Korea.

Instead of staying silent on human rights violations, President Trump could strengthen his credibility as a global leader by pressing Kim Jong Un to protect human rights. He could urge Kim Jong Un to open all detention facilities and political prison camps to international observers and release people held for exercising their human rights. He could also press North Korea to respect the recommendations of the United Nations and sign the Convention Against Torture. He could even contribute to the World Food Program’s efforts to feed North Korean people.

It’s well past time for President Trump to seize the opportunity to raise human rights concerns with President Kim Jong Un and urge him to publicly commit to urgent reforms. The United States can no longer hold back on condemning human rights abuses in an effort to support diplomatic dialogues. Failure to acknowledge the basic rights of the people of North Korea could have far-reaching implications for millions of people.

Jack Rendler is country specialist for North Korea at Amnesty International USA.