“The gravity, scale, duration and nature of the unspeakable atrocities committed in the country reveal a totalitarian state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”
— Michael Kirby, chair of the U.N. commission of inquiry on human rights in North Korea
People who argue that President Trump should set aside the issue of human rights when he meets Kim Jong Un on Tuesday ignore the fact that Kim’s regime is not just guilty of the abuses usually chronicled by advocacy groups — torture, disappearances and the like. It is founded on, and sustained by, crimes against its population so massive and monstrous that they almost defy description. Kirby, whose U.N. commission laid them out in a landmark 2014 report, described four vast compounds where between 80,000 and 130,000 people — including multiple generations of families — are held incommunicado for life and subjected to brutalities comparable to those in the Nazi concentration camps.
More recently, an investigation by the International Bar Association led by three internationally respected jurists concluded that Kim and other senior members of his regime could be prosecuted for 10 of the 11 crimes against humanity defined in the statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), including extermination, enslavement, torture and sexual violence. The only one deemed not applicable was apartheid.
“Much of the inmate population,” the bar association reported in December, “has been gradually eliminated through deliberate starvation, forced labor, executions, torture, rape and the denial of reproductive rights enforced through punishment, forced abortion and infanticide.” Its chronicle of dozens of individual crimes makes stomach-turning reading. Take this bullet point: “One witness described a torture chamber with blood and flesh on the walls and decaying corpses of past victims placed in the chamber in order to instill fear in the next prisoner.”
Or this one: “Rape of teenage girls and their subsequent attempts to commit suicide by jumping into the Daedonggang River were so common that prison guards were deployed to the river to thwart them.”
Presiding over all this is the dictator whom Trump has taken to calling “honorable,” and whom he promises to make happy and rich, if only he will give up his nuclear arsenal.
Unfortunately, it’s not so easy. Kim and his regime are inseparable from their atrocities. It’s questionable whether he could survive in power without them. And how could North Korea open to the world and to foreign investors — how could the United States sign a peace treaty with it — while those camps continue to function?
This is not to say that Trump’s diplomacy with Kim is not worth trying. But it does mean that the regime’s vast apparatus of repression has to be addressed from the beginning of the process, alongside its missiles and nukes. The two must be dismantled together.
“While past negotiations with the North may have privileged the security issues at the expense of human rights . . . the two issues are today intimately tied in unprecedented ways,” concluded a 2016 study on North Korea strategy by Robert Gallucci, a former negotiator with Pyongyang, and Victor Cha, who was Trump’s first choice for ambassador to South Korea. The two pointed out that practices such as forced labor and severe food rationing “favor the regime and its proliferation practices” by providing resources and suppressing dissent.
Cha and Gallucci argued that human rights could be an important source of leverage over Kim. They say the leadership has been rattled by repeated calls by the U.N. General Assembly for the referral of its crimes for ICC prosecution. This, they said, “might cause the regime to try to deflect pressure with concessions or progress on the nuclear front.” That doesn’t mean trading human rights for nukes. But it could mean incorporating steps on human rights into an overall political and security settlement.
A typical response to such proposals is that adding human rights to an already daunting disarmament agenda will only cause the process to stall. Yet the history of arms control refutes this theory. In seeking limits on the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal in the 1970s, the United States insisted on a human rights “basket”; the resulting Helsinki accords did more to end the Cold War than any of the nuclear deals.
Conversely, the Obama administration chose to exclude all non-nuclear issues from the 2015 deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program. The regime’s domestic repression and war-making in Syria and Yemen predictably continued, giving Trump more reasons — and more support — for tearing up the accord.
It’s not clear yet whether Trump intends to raise human rights at Tuesday’s summit; given his general disregard for the issue and his zeal for a deal, it won’t be surprising if he neglects it. If so, he will be making a mistake that, with the ghosts of the camps, will come back to haunt him.