Trump-Kim Summit Will Almost Certainly Ignore Human Rights Abuses
President Donald Trump is set to meet face to face with Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam later this week. It is a poetic choice of location for a summit given Vietnam and Korea’s Cold War histories. They will likely pose for pictures together and discuss North Korea’s denuclearization in return for the relaxing of U.S. sanctions. They might exchange some sentiments about how much Trump admires the dictator, and perhaps banter about Kim’s love of American basketball. But there is one topic that, almost certainly, neither of them will talk about: North Korea’s human rights abuses.
More specifically, it is highly doubtful that Trump will draw attention to the plight of the many North Koreans shut away and tortured in political re-education prisons. It is similarly improbable that he will address the thousands of abused workers trapped in long-term labor prisons and forced to work for the regime, or that because of discrimination based on family loyalty to the ruling party, many North Koreans lack enough food or nutrients to survive. Less likely still is he to discuss the regime’s oppression of the freedoms of speech, expression, association, religion, and assembly. This can be said with confidence based on precedent: Trump ardently avoided talking about these horrors at the last summit between the two.
The great irony in all of this is that a year ago, back when the leaders were comparing the sizes of their nuclear buttons, Trump was lambasting Kim for his abuse of human rights. At his 2018 State of the Union Address, Trump invited the extraordinary North Korean defector and human rights activist Ji Seong-ho to attend. The President highlighted Ji’s struggle to escape from the North Korean regime in his address, using it as an opportunity to criticize Kim and his government for their less than stellar human rights record. He also honored the memory of Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who died after being held captive in North Korea for a little over a year. At this year’s State of the Union, Trump proudly declared that the two leaders would be meeting face to face once again in Vietnam, and that without him, the United States would be at war with North Korea. Oh, also, he and Kim have fallen in love.
The problem isn’t that Trump and Kim are meeting — although we ought to question if Trump should legitimize the North Korean dictator by agreeing to such a summit in the first place. The larger concern is that Trump was only using North Korea’s human rights abuses to further tarnish Kim’s image. Now that relations with North Korea are less tense than they once were, he’s back to ignoring long-standing issues of such civil liberty violations. Nuclear issues haven’t just placed human rights on the back burner, they’ve removed them from the debate entirely. Trump ought to bring up the issue of human rights in North Korea during the summit. If not, it will be yet another meeting that touts peace on the Korean peninsula — just not for the thousands of oppressed North Korean people.