President Donald Trump praised North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un as a “funny guy” who “loves his people” on Tuesday after concluding his summit with Kim. Kim definitely has a funny way of demonstrating that love, because North Koreans are the most abused people on Earth, and that is definitely not an easy title to win.
Trump said that human rights were discussed during the summit, but the discussion was focused on denuclearization “90 percent of the time.” It would be interesting to know exactly what Trump said about humanitarian issues and how Kim responded.
For example, did Trump bring up North Korea’s hideous prison camps? They have been compared to Nazi concentration camps by people who survived Nazi concentration camps.
The U.S. State Department published a report last September describing North Korean prisoners as “walking skeletons” who are starved, beaten, and sexually abused.
Entire families disappear into the camps and die from the brutal conditions if they are not executed first. There are people who spend their entire lives in North Korean prisons, having been incarcerated as children – or even unborn children – because multiple generations of an entire family are punished for the “crimes” of individual family members. Needless to say, due process is a joke. Few features of North Korea’s judicial system meet international standards for individual rights and basic humanity.
Survivors describe overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, the constant rape of female prisoners, and nights filled with the wailing of people in agony from starvation and injuries. Prisoners are sometimes forced to participate in the execution of other prisoners.
Despite denials from Pyongyang that the camps exist at all, satellite imagery showed the prison system expanding in size over the past few years. That is not surprising because slave labor is a major element of what passes for an “economy” in the dungeon state.
The regime in Pyongyang pockets an estimated $2 billion to $3 billion annually from forced labor, including North Korean slaves rented out to foreign businesses. An undercover investigation made public in April found North Korean workers in China, Russia, and Poland treated like animals, worked to the brink of exhaustion, and stripped of their meager wages by overseers who said it was their “patriotic duty” to surrender most of their earnings to the Kim regime.
North Korean citizens live like prisoners even when they are not in jail. North Koreans are kept isolated from each other and the outside world. Their rulers subject them to what the United Nations described in 2014 as an “all-encompassing indoctrination machine that takes root from childhood to propagate an official personality cult and to manufacture absolute obedience to the supreme leader, effectively to the exclusion of any thought independent of official ideology and state propaganda.”
North Korea’s Internet is a luxury accessible by few, so tightly controlled that it makes China’s Internet look relaxed by comparison. Its political system lacks the tiniest shred of the political freedom traditionally demanded by the West as proof of legitimacy for the government. There is no room for dissent or freedom of expression.
A rigid caste system known as songbun condemns many families to lower-class status forever, based in large part on what a citizen’s ancestors did during the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, and the early days of communist founder Kim Il-Sung’s rule. Religious freedom is nonexistent. Expressing interest in Christianity is one of the “crimes” that can land North Koreans in a prison camp.
Starvation is widespread, exacerbated by periodic droughts and crop failures that North Korea’s primitive communist system is utterly incapable of alleviating. North Korean defectors have spoken of eating mice and even dried vomit to survive. The distribution of food is also used as an instrument to guarantee political loyalty and military supremacy over the population. The Hunger Games never end in North Korea.
President Trump knows all of this, of course. He made headlines by inviting heroic North Korean escapee Ji Seong-ho to his January 2018 State of the Union address. Ji lost his limbs when a train ran over him while he was scrounging for food. His brother and sister literally ate dirt so they could feed him enough to survive. He was tortured by the dictatorship and escaped from North Korea on crutches. His father died while trying to follow his route to freedom.
The conundrum facing Trump is how to address the inhuman evil of Kim’s regime while keeping the dictator at the negotiating table. This is not just a matter of Kim taking umbrage because Trump hassles him about mass executions.
The North Korean regime has been so monstrous for so long that humanitarian reform is an existential threat to Kim’s survival – even if, as Trump seemed to imply in his post-summit remarks, Kim is personally uncomfortable his family legacy of brutality and truly wishes to change, or at least understands change is necessary to interface with the rest of the world.
A review of the North Korean horrors listed above should make the case that partial or timid reform is not enough. No one would be satisfied if Kim agreed to release 10,000 prisoners and distribute food more effectively, but left everything else the same.
On the other hand, admitting the depths of his regime’s depravity and swiftly implementing comprehensive reforms would involve a tremendous loss of prestige for Kim and undermine the regime’s mythology, which holds the Kim dynasty as semi-divine spiritual and moral leaders for the entire Korean people.
To even begin dismantling North Korea’s chamber of horrors, and proceed with not only denuclearization but the even more difficult task of de-militarization, the regime must be convinced that its survival will not be jeopardized. Confronting Kim Jong-un with a full indictment of his family’s crimes would certainly drive him away from the bargaining table, or make his overthrow likely if he remained.
Lavishing him with praise and downplaying those crimes is nauseating, but it is difficult to see any other way for productive negotiations to begin. If the negotiations end with tens of thousands of people still rotting away in slave labor camps, then they were not productive enough.