If there’s not going to be a major change in life in North Korea, if this whole thing is just because Trump, Kim and Moon need it to happen for their own political standing, it’s hard to get excited about the summit happening later today U.S. time in Singapore. If, as it now seems, we’ll see some vague promise by each side to give a little bit and decide what to give in a process that will take months to unfold, all that can be said is … we’ve seen that before.
But South Korea and the U.S. have already diminished their leverage and reputations through the compromises they have already made to North Korea. Among the biggest of them: the diminution of discussing North Korea’s awfulness, particularly the regime’s use of gulags and fear to maintain power.
Only a few journalists pointed out their plight in the frenzied pre-summit coverage. The report that pushed into new territory with fresh reporting was by Alastair Gale, my former boss, at the Wall Street Journal. Published on Monday/Tuesday, it was excellent. Key excerpt:
Tales from the gulag are grim. One inmate of a North Korean labor camp from 2015 to 2016 described having to bend bodies in half to fit as many as possible in an incinerator, according to a recent survey by a South Korean state-run think-thank. It wasn’t clear how the prisoners died, but disease, starvation and work accidents can kill swathes of inmates.
In October 2016, four men and three women were executed by firing squad at an airfield in a border city near China, one defector said in the survey. In February 2015, five men were shot to death at a sports stadium just north of the capital in front of a few thousand locals, according to another defector in the same report. The survey was based on the testimony of 137 defectors who entered South Korea in 2017.
Ms. Kim pulled her shirt collar open to reveal red gouges across her shoulder. The female smuggler who arranged the escape of her sister’s child was sent to a labor camp, she said, and after her release shared stories of starvation and beatings.
Life became harder under the new leader after 2011. Officials demanded bribes of expensive items such as rabbit skins to allow traders like her to operate. The wealth gap was increasing. Ms. Kim, who survived by selling potatoes in larger towns and bringing back MSG to sell in hers, escaped herself in 2014.
“The state treated poorer people like dogs,” she said.
The Washington Post on Wednesday had a story that looked at prospects that Trump would discuss the North’s human rights situation with Kim and concluded that it was slim. Human Rights Watch tried to get some media attention with its own statement on Tuesday that summed up the international community’s most recent efforts to influence North Korea to stop its repressive practices.
On the “Impossible State” podcast by CSIS experts that was released Thursday as a scene-setter to the summit, Michael Green, Sue Mi Terry and Victor Cha discussed how the human rights situation could be discussed with Kim in the context of regime security. “There are hundreds of thousands of North Koreans in gulags and there are millions in essentially internal exile. We don’t know what they will know about this summit. But it really bothers me to think that the leader of the free world is meeting with the leader of the most repressive regime in the world and it appears he has no intention to even raise that,” Green said. Cha added that the real threat to the Kim regime is not from the U.S. or South Korea, but from within. “If this regime really wanted to be secure, it would treat its people better,” Cha said.
A few columnists delved into the plight of the North Korean people this week. Nicole Bibbins Sedaca in Foreign Policy urged Trump to bring up the human rights situation to Kim when they meet. Nick Kristof, the North Korea expert in the NY Times columnist fold, focused on the topic in today’s column. He notes some progress by North Korea in responding to criticism of its treatment of, for instance, disabled people. He concludes with one concrete step for Trump to take in Singapore today:
Trump could encourage Kim to accept Red Cross visits to labor camps, or to release family members of those convicted (right now, the whole family is often sent to a camp). These are difficult issues and we don’t want to make the nuclear negotiations harder, but let’s never forget that North Korea is not just another nuclear state — and that what’s at stake is not just warheads, but also human lives.
For now, however, all signs point to Trump not doing very much with Kim and essentially preserving the status quo in North Korea. But there’s also this: Trump has eroded America’s moral high ground. If Trump were to challenge Kim about the way his regime treats people, Kim could simply point out this in today’s headlines.