By Robert King
President Donald Trump surprised everyone when he unexpectedly told a South Korean delegation that he would be willing to meet with North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong-un. The initial proposal was for a meeting to take place by the end of May at a place yet to be determined. There have been numerous questions raised about the wisdom of talks, a possible agenda, and potential problems with American allies. Nevertheless, such a meeting is the issue de jour for foreign policy analysts.
Advance preparation for such a conversation is critical, and the United States is in a less than ideal situation at present. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is on his way out as of a few days ago, and Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo is facing waiting for what might be a difficult Senate confirmation. Other senior diplomats who are needed for preparation are also not in place. Fourteen months after the President’s inauguration we still do not have a U.S. Ambassador to Seoul, and the senior diplomat at the State Department who has dealt with North Korean issues for the last two years just retired.
These personnel issues plus other indications of turmoil in the White House suggest that preparation for such a meeting will not be quick or easy. Going into talks with Kim Jong-un without careful planning would be very risky. Though North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are clearly the chief topic for such a discussion, it is not clear what outcome from such a meeting is possible. There is also the question of what other issues need to be raised, and in particular whether human rights ought to be on the agenda.
Two months ago in his State of the Union Address to Congress, the President gave considerable attention and focus to North Korea’s human rights abuses. He said “no regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea,” and then went on, “We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies.”
In fact, over 10 percent of the speech was devoted to North Korea—a very significant amount of time in a speech reporting on the President’s first year in office and highlighting the major domestic and international issues facing the United States.
The President not only discussed the threat of its nuclear and missile programs, but he also gave even greater attention to North Korea’s human rights abuses. He invited the parents, brother and sister of Otto Warmbier to the United States Capitol for the speech. Otto is the American college student who was arrested, tried and imprisoned while on a tourist visit to North Korea and who was returned to his parents 17 months later in an unresponsive comatose state. He died shortly after returning home to Cincinnati. The president welcomed the parents and siblings to the State of the Union Address as “powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world.”
The President then introduced to the Members of Congress a young man from North Korea, Ji Song-ho, “another witness to the ominous nature of this regime.” Song-ho lost his leg in an effort to find food during the famine of the 1990s in North Korea. He was tortured by North Korean security officers after returning from China where he went in a search for food. Subsequently, he made a dangerous escape from the North, and he completed the arduous trip over thousands of miles on crutches across China, through Southeast Asia, and ultimately to South Korea. The President described Song-ho as an example of the many “defectors” who have fled the North to find freedom and security in South Korea and elsewhere.
Three days after the State of the Union Address, President Trump invited to the Oval Office eight North Korean defectors including Ji Song-ho and five others from South Korea and two who received asylum in the United States. Holding the meeting in the Oval Office and devoting a significant amount the President’s time was an important effort to highlight the North’s abysmal human right record. Furthermore, when Vice President Mike Pence represented the United States at the opening of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics a few days later, he was accompanied by Otto Warmbier’s father Fred.
Two months after the State of the Union Speech and the President’s meeting with North Korean defectors, we are looking at the possibility of Trump-Kim Jong-un talks. In light of what the President recently said, human rights is very much relevant. But will the President raise this sensitive subject with Kim?
If the meeting does take place, failure to raise North Korean human rights issues would be a serious mistake. Because the President has given such attention to the issue in the past two months, his credibility and prestige are on the line. Not to include the issue on the agenda would signal that the United States is not really concerned about human rights. This would suggest that raising humanitarian issues was only part of a Trump effort to “soften-up” the DPRK to bring them to the negotiating table to discuss the only issue that really counts—nuclear weapons and missiles.
For the last seven decades the United States and our democratic allies around the globe have sought to create a rules-based world order in which differences are resolved peacefully, and where nations cooperate in improving the general well-being. A key part, an integral part of that international order is respect for human rights.
The best way to press human rights with North Korea is through the United Nations, as we have sought to do over the last two decades under both Republican and Democratic administrations. The UN Human Rights Council has appointed a Special Rapporteur on the issue, a Commission of Inquiry on the issue has produced a definitive report on the problems, and criticism of North Korea’s human rights abuses has received overwhelming international support in the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly. The latest report of the Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea continues to detail and document the ongoing abuses, and the report is expected to be approved by the Human Rights Council in a resolution that the North Koreans are unlikely to press for a recorded vote, since support in the past has been so overwhelming.
The President should urge Kim Jong-un to cooperate with the United Nations on these issues. He should urge the North to welcome a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on DPRK human rights, as it has already done by receiving a visit from the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Persons with Disabilities.
It is helpful for the United Nations to take the lead on the North Korea human rights engagement. This means the United States is not the only voice on human rights, but one of many urging progress. The President can make the argument that engagement with UN agencies on human rights would improve the international stature of the North.
Ultimately, American influence in the world is less a function of the “size of the button” on President Trump’s desk than it is the strength and respect we show for the ideals of human rights, democracy, tolerance, international order, and respect for other nations. It is important that we press the North on human rights, though it may not produce immediate success. Human rights is not the focal point of the discussions, but it is important to include that topic.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from The White House’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.