Perhaps Mr. Trump is playing good cop here, attempting to keep Mr. Kim from going back to ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests like those that escalated tensions during the “fire and fury” phase of Mr. Trump’s previous “maximum pressure” campaign. Mr. Trump’s words may be clumsy, and probably do not deter Mr. Kim from building new weapons, but the halt in testing is a worthy interim goal on the way to limiting the threat of North Korea’s weapons over the long term.
But Mr. Trump should not take the waterfront fantasy too far. Recent reports reflect what the world has known about North Korea for a long time: For most of its people, this is a pitiless regime, a police state in which not just the famished population but the relatively pampered elite have reason to be terrified. According to a leading South Korean newspaper, Mr. Kim sent his top negotiator with the United States to a firing squad after a second, failed summit with Mr. Trump in Hanoi; if true, an appalling act of brutality.
At the same time, new reports from the United Nations underline the dystopia of punishment and deprivation that everyday North Koreans continue to face. Lack of rain, abnormally high temperatures and floods had a “severe impact” on the yields of crops harvested last fall, according to a U.N. assessment in May, and those due to be harvested next month are also in trouble. Diets are poor, rations are declining, and 10 million people, or 40 percent of the population, are food-insecure and in need of assistance, the United Nations said.
A fresh look at the plight of North Korea’s population and its struggle to survive is contained in a second report just published by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and based on 214 interviews conducted in 2017 and 2018 with North Koreans who fled to South Korea. The report notes that the state system of rationing all but collapsed in the 1990s, to be partially replaced by rudimentary markets. But, the report found, without rule of law, and under an ever-present threat of detention, survival is often based on a cycle of corruption — the extortion of a hungry population by venal state officials and middlemen.
Nice words may placate Mr. Kim for now but, eventually, North Korea’s people must be released from such systemic suffering, and the regime that created it must be held to account for its crimes.