Bankrupt and shame Kim Jong Un for his Singapore con job

Were a summit meeting like a blind date, one might relish the “spur of the moment,” for example, a post-lunch run together to the movies, or even an untoward come-on or two. But because a summit means what it implies — the culmination of lengthy negotiations and affirmation of agreements — President Donald Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore had all the makings of a failure.

Now, ensnared by Pyongyang into protracted negotiations, during which Kim will try to further advance his nuclear capabilities and buy time with evasive non-action, President TrumpDonald TrumpUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Heller won't say if Biden won election MORE has a choice: Maintain the illusion of denuclearization and peace by submitting to Kim’s terms and tempo of talks, or do all he can to thwart Kim’s campaign by bankrupting and shaming him.

The Trump administration is the first to implement sanctions against North Korea in a meaningful way. No previous administration took the trouble to constrict broadly Pyongyang’s overseas financial networks, fine its third-party partners, and galvanize other United Nations member states to isolate Pyongyang with diplomatic pressure. However, as expected, the political will to enforce sanctions — which requires constant effort — dissipated the moment Kim made his overture.


The administration must target Pyongyang’s heavyweight enablers, which include some of the world’s biggest banks that happen to be Chinese. Tepidity born of financial risks in the face of a nuclear threat to the U.S. mainland is dangerous inanity. Hit them with multibillion-dollar fines; they will grimace but pay. And there will be ripple deterrence effect on smaller banks and businesses the world over that have a commercial stake in Pyongyang.

With equal resolve, the Trump administration must squeeze Pyongyang’s other glaring pressure point: its egregious criminality. It has been over four years since the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) published its monumental 372-page report on the Kim regime’s willful, systematic attacks on its civilian population — including its inhumane policy of “knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

But neither the United States nor South Korea, the purported sole representative government for all Korean people, has addressed these atrocities. Washington must engage Seoul in this campaign. For example, to get the message across, place North Korea’s crimes against humanity in a digestible pan-Korean, historical context. How? Emphasize Japanese atrocities during Japan’s 35-year colonial rule over the Korean peninsula, 1910-45 — something all Koreans can digest.

During the postwar U.S. occupation of Japan, 1945-52, had the United States followed Japanese examples in colonial Korea, the United States may have undertaken any of the following:

  1. Prohibit the speaking of Japanese language in schools;
  2. Subsume Japanese history under the narrative arc of U.S. history;
  3. Start the school day with the singing of the American national anthem;
  4. Force Japanese to adopt American family names;
  5. Force Japanese to adopt Protestant Christianity as their national religion;
  6. Dominate all government sectors, industry and society as overlords or absentee landlords;
  7. Forcibly repatriate Japanese laborers to work in American factories and mines;
  8. Make second-class citizens of the Japanese;
  9. Conscript Japanese men to serve in U.S. foreign wars;
  10. Force Japanese girls and young women to serve U.S. soldiers in military brothels.

The United States did none of these things, but Imperial Japan committed all of the above in Korea. In many ways, it was a uniquely cruel totalitarian rule, characterized by thought control and mass mobilization. Japanese colonial masters were armed with a powerful bureaucracy, a monopoly on arms and communications, and galvanized by a ruthless nationalistic purpose.

And, now, the kicker to jolt Koreans into shedding complacency that borders on denialism.

As atrocious as Japan’s colonial rule was, had the Kim dynasty, over the past 70 years, followed Japanese examples in Korea, it may have allowed for any the following:

  1. The right to choose where to live;
  2. Freedom of internal movement and travel overseas;
  3. Freedom to choose one’s profession, unfettered private ownership of land, and the accretion of wealth;
  4. Mixed marriages, instead of prohibiting them and killing the fetuses and newborns of mixed couples;
  5. Some freedom of thought and conscience, in spite of constant indoctrination by the state and forced loyalty to the leader;
  6. Independent places of worship;
  7. Independent newspapers, even if periodically censored, harassed and shut down;
  8. Access to information in any medium, including foreign literature and radio broadcasts;
  9. Unfettered access to food, through private plots of land, barter and markets;
  10. Repeal the insidious political classification system, songbun.

Basic freedoms during the colonial era were trampled upon, and life for most Koreans was marked by extreme economic privation and political repression. However, until Japan’s total war mobilization in 1937, the Japanese colonial government did allow in part freedoms such as Korean-run newspapers, worship, movement, and access to financial institutions. North Korea, on the other hand, throughout the Kim dynasty has deprived its people of all basic rights.

It is not necessarily the duty of the United States or any other country to exhort South Koreans to raise human right issues with their fellow Koreans north of the border. But from utilitarian and moral perspectives, doing so is in the U.S. national interest. The Kim clan will not willingly grant basic freedoms to its downtrodden people, even as it incorporates limited foreign investment in isolated enclaves within its kingdom.

Likewise, Kim Jong Un will neither disarm nor reform the national economy even as he allows his family and cronies the benefits of quasi-capitalism in the showcase capital city. The rest of the population, above 80 percent, will continue to languish under the yoke of state-sponsored crimes and deprivation.

These realities must be communicated to the North Korean people, as constantly and determinedly as the enforcement of sanctions against the regime. Real reform and dismantlement of weapons of mass destruction will come only when the Kim regime is presented with sufficient disincentives from staying the course. Empty promises only prolong the problem — both Pyongyang’s march toward full-blown nuclear capability and the unspeakable, unparalleled agony of the North Korean people.

Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. A former research associate of Harvard University's Korea Institute, he has testified as an expert witness at the House Foreign Affairs Committee and advised the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Korea policy. Follow him on Twitter @SungYoonLee1.