“North Korea is not the paradise your grandfather envisioned,” President Trump bluntly informed Kim Jong Un. “It is a hell that no person deserves.”
No, the president did not deliver that scolding in Hanoi. Instead, he heaped praise on Kim, calling him “a great leader.” He went so far as to absolve the dictator of responsibility for the unspeakable treatment of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died shortly after his release from a North Korean prison.
Yet, just 16 months ago, in a speech to the South Korean parliament, Mr. Trump told an entirely different story.
“An estimated 100,000 North Koreans suffer in gulags, toiling in forced labor and enduring torture, starvation, rape, and murder on a constant basis,” he said. “The horror of life in North Korea is so complete that citizens pay bribes to government officials to have themselves exported abroad as slaves. They would rather be slaves than live in North Korea.”
Unlike much of what Trump says, every word of that indictment is true. It is backed up by in-depth investigations by the United Nations, the International Bar Association and numerous human-rights groups. But in his zeal to embrace Kim and bolster his delusional bid for a Nobel Peace Prize, Trump has forgotten it all.
In 2017, his administration waged an aggressive campaign to call attention to North Korea’s record on human rights, including camps that have been described as worse than Nazi Germany’s and such crimes against humanity as extermination, enslavement and sexual violence. In addition to Trump’s speech, the United States convened a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the Kim regime’s offenses.
Now, the administration has veered to the other extreme. For the first time since 2014, there was no U.S.-sponsored Security Council meeting on North Korean human rights last year. Vice President Pence canceled a speech on the subject in December. Human rights did not figure on this week’s agenda in Hanoi, and neither Trump nor any other senior official said a word about it — apart from the president’s shameful statement concerning Warmbier.
By now, Trump’s shallow strategy for dealing with adversaries such as Kim has become painfully obvious: First hit them with sanctions and insults, then shower them with praise, excuse their abuses and hope that presidential charm will prompt them to make concessions their regimes have rejected for decades.
The diplomatic disaster in Hanoi ought to make clear once and for all that the gambit won’t work — not even on the 35-year-old ruler of one of the world’s most isolated states. The only apparent effect of Trump’s wooing of Kim was to make the dictator believe he could sell the president on a decidedly one-sided bargain that would have lifted most sanctions on North Korea while allowing it to keep its nuclear arsenal.
The failure goes beyond Trump’s gross overestimation of his dealmaking ability. The administration’s abrupt reversal on North Korean human rights shows that it fundamentally misunderstands the challenge presented by the world’s last Stalinist regime. The president’s theory is that Kim will trade his nuclear arsenal for the prospect of transforming North Korea’s economy so that it produces the prosperity seen in the South.
As U.S. intelligence professionals have tried to explain to Trump, Kim prefers holding nukes to feeding his people. He knows that his regime would not exist without them; nor could the totalitarian system survive economic modernization.
Let’s imagine that Kim was tempted by Trump’s offer. How would it be possible to open his country to foreign investors and normal trade while maintaining four huge concentration camps where, according to a U.N. report, tens of thousands of people, including entire families, are held incommunicado for life? What about the estimated 400,000 forced laborers, including children, working in construction and agriculture?
The simple truth is that the North Korean regime, its nuclear arsenal and its system of repression are intricately linked. If Kim were serious about denuclearization, there would be signs of an internal easing. There aren’t. Consider the report last month by the Seoul-based North Korean Strategy Center, which said it had confirmed accounts of 421 officials murdered or otherwise purged by Kim since 2010. Methods included hanging, using antiaircraft guns or flamethrowers for executions, and feeding naked victims to dogs.
The U.N. rapporteur on North Korea, Tomás Ojea Quintana, reported late last year that “the human rights situation at the moment has not changed on the ground in North Korea despite the important progress on security, peace and prosperity.”
Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea has been revealed as a fantasy. Real progress would require a restart based on patient diplomacy, ramped-up pressure , and a recognition that the problem entails not just nuclear reactors and missile factories, but torture chambers and concentration camps.