The ongoing talks between the United States and North Korea will hopefully allow President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger welcomes baby boy Tennessee lawmaker presents self-defense bill in 'honor' of Kyle Rittenhouse Five things to know about the New York AG's pursuit of Trump MORE to prioritize human rights in negotiations. While denuclearization of North Korea is certainly an important goal of any summit, any rapprochement between the United States and North Korea over the long term must have as its centerpiece an end to the human rights atrocities committed by Kim Jong Un’s regime.
Summit planners must not lose sight of North Korea’s deplorable human rights record. In 2014, a United Nations commission issued a report documenting the widespread human rights abuses in North Korea. As many as 200,000 North Korean citizens who have committed no crime are held without any semblance of due process in labor camps where they face starvation, torture, backbreaking labor, a daily fear of execution, and no chance of release or escape.
The fate of the average North Korean citizen who is not imprisoned in these camps is not much better. They face inadequate food rations, abject poverty, the complete deprivation of human rights, and the fear that they are one perceived transgression away from imprisonment in a political prison camp or execution.
Kim Jong Un surely knows that he could be held liable for the crimes against humanity of which he and his regime are guilty, and likely suspects that the issue will be raised by the United States if a summit ever occurs. That being the case, why did Kim Jong Un propose a meeting with President Trump in the first place?
We can assume that Kim Jong Un’s principal interest is to destroy, or to at least weaken, the alliance between the United States and South Korea, a goal that Chinese President Xi Jinping likely shares. Kim Jong Un sees direct negotiations with the United States, outside of the context of the Six Party Talks that have governed U.S. relations with North Korea since the George W. Bush administration, as the best path to doing so.
It may also be that the strong sanctions being applied against North Korea (to which, for a change, China and Russia seem to at least be paying lip service) is beginning to negatively affect North Korea. The brave North Korean soldier, Oh Chong Song, who was shot by North Korean border guards as he defected across the Joint Security Area last November, was found to be severely malnourished when he was being treated in the hospital in South Korea. If North Korean soldiers in the Joint Security Area, typically the most elite of the country’s military, are malnourished, then the average North Korean must be in dire straits indeed.
Kim Jong Un, of course, does not care in the least about the average North Korean, but he is desperate to keep his elite loyalists at bay, and the sanctions are likely hindering his ability to do so. He may still see a summit with the United States as the best means of ending or ameliorating the sanctions. Indeed, U.S. officials were speaking of infrastructure investment inside of North Korea had the summit been a success.
President Trump should insist that any summit result not only in the complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea, but also, in the closure of all political prison camps in the country and in the complete and verifiable release of all of its political prisoners. There is ample evidence of these camps from eyewitnesses, satellite images, and testimony of former political prisoners themselves.
Kim Jong Un should not get away with denying their existence nor the existence of the 200,000 North Koreans who are enslaved there. President Trump is obviously aware of the gross human rights abuses committed by Kim Jong Un’s regime. His recognition of a North Korean defector during his State of the Union this year and his subsequent meeting in the Oval Office with North Korean defectors suggest that he is willing to call attention to human rights abuses in North Korea.
The ongoing negotiations give U.S. officials the opportunity to rebalance any future summit agenda to include not only the security threat that North Korea poses to the United States and our allies in Southeast Asia, but also the regime’s human rights record. Those violations and the security threat are inextricably linked. The United States should not separate the two. A summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un poses great risks but, just possibly, the opportunity for great rewards. Not only are world leaders watching. The enslaved North Korean people are watching and waiting for their liberation as well.
Thomas R. Barker is an attorney with Foley Hoag. He has represented organizations formed by North Korean defectors in South Korea and the United States, as well as North Korean defectors in obtaining citizenship in the United States. He served as general counsel of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration.