Post-summit, remember human rights — and China’s interests

Post-summit, remember human rights — and China’s interests
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For one who has enthusiastically supported President Donald Trump’s unconventional approach to the China and North Korea challenges, optimism after the Singapore summit is now tempered by increased caution.

Those of us who have credited the Trump administration’s steely resolve and clear-eyed diplomacy for bringing the North Korean crisis so close to potential resolution must rely, for the time being, on hopeful assumptions about things we do not yet know.   

What is publicly known about the summit, based purely on official statements and the president’s own words, does not, on its face, inspire increased confidence going forward. Instead, it evokes bad memories of President Obama’s self-congratulatory and wishful thinking regarding fraught situations in Libya, Syria, Iran, China, Cuba and Russia — all of which turned out badly.


But we are not privy to whatever assurances and commitments Kim Jong Un and his colleagues made in private. Moreover, President TrumpDonald John TrumpAustralia recognizes West Jerusalem as Israeli capital, won't move embassy Mulvaney will stay on as White House budget chief Trump touts ruling against ObamaCare: ‘Mitch and Nancy’ should pass new health-care law MORE’s prior intuitions and commonsense approach to the dangerous challenges posed by China and North Korea have proved sound and earned him the benefit of the doubt, unless and until events prove otherwise. And, a capable, highly-motivated national security team supporting the president’s lofty but daunting initiatives remains in place.

While North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs constitute the immediate crisis, the president has put another critical issue on the table: Pyongyang’s execrable human rights record.

In major speeches at the United Nations, in Seoul, and before a joint session of Congress, and in dramatic public appearances with victims of the North Korean regime, he has elevated the human rights issue to a level far surpassing anything done by any of his predecessors. That unspoken threat of regime change from within, encouraged from the outside, probably motivated Kim at least as much as any threat of military force.

Though the president joked at his post-summit press conference about enjoying “one of the great memories of all time,” he will not have forgotten the implicit moral commitment he made to the North Korean people still suffering under Pyongyang’s brutal rule.  

He responded affirmatively when asked whether he raised the human rights issue with Kim.  “Yes, it was discussed. It will be discussed more in the future. Human rights.”

But, the president candidly acknowledged that the issue had to be subordinated to the nuclear crisis for the present state of negotiations. “[Human rights] was discussed relatively briefly compared to denuclearization. Obviously that is where we started and where we ended. They will be doing things. I think he wants to do things.”

Clearly, the administration expects that an economic bonanza in North Korea and a guarantee of external security will induce some political relaxation by the Kim regime and a significant improvement in the country’s human rights situation. Kim himself seems to desire an enhancement of his image globally, though North Korea’s Olympics ploy and Kim’s new camaraderie with South Korean President Moon Jae-in — and now the U.S. president — already have produced a public relations windfall.  

The X factor in Pyongyang’s future course is Chinese leader Xi Jinping. While Beijing is undoubtedly relieved that the actual outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula has been avoided in the near term, it has reason to hope that the threat of conflict remains over time. It has served China’s strategic interests to be seen as the responsible intermediary between Pyongyang and Washington and provided leverage on a range of other U.S.-China disputes, such as trade, the South China Sea, Taiwan and China’s own human rights issues.

While the immediate threat of military conflict with North Korea has substantially dissipated for now, the danger of confrontation with China has steadily increased in recent months, despite President Trump’s generous praise for Xi. The mix of threats, flattery and economic pressures may need adjustment in the case of China.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010.  He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies, and has held nonresident appointments in the Asia-Pacific program at the Atlantic Council and the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.