President Trump’s plan to transform North Korea into a modern economy — which one might call the “McDonald’s theory” — has a huge hole in it: It can happen only if Pyongyang improves on human rights. By taking human rights off the table, Trump is undermining his own goal.
One need only look at the low-production-value video the National Security Council made in advance of the Singapore summit to understand how Trump views his historic diplomatic initiative. Trump bragged about showing Kim Jong Un the video, which illustrates a future North Korea flooded with technology, tourism and wealth. The country’s only other option, according to the film, is war with the United States and total desolation.
In fact, though, Kim is likely pursuing a third option: a strategy that trades parts of his nuclear program for economic benefits that will go solely to the regime and Pyongyang elites. Such a deal would fulfill Kim’s primary goal of regime survival. There is no evidence Kim wants to transform his country into something resembling South Korea, where capitalism reigns.
“Their desire to develop the economy and our thoughts on developing their economy are completely different,” said Jung H. Pak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Trump’s “McDonald’s theory of foreign relations,” she says, is based on false assumptions about how the North Korea regime thinks and operates.
To be sure, Kim needs to show his people some economic progress, but he must balance that with maintaining strict control. In the past few years, Kim has allowed small markets to operate independently throughout North Korea, which are improving people’s lives — but are also chipping away at the state’s dominance over its citizens. He may open up a Potemkin McDonald’s in Pyongyang, but he’s not going to abandon his Stalinist model.
Besides, no foreign businesses will want to operate in North Korea under current conditions. There’s no rule of law, no recourse for companies to address grievances, no Internet, no system governing workers’ rights. Western firms will not want to employ North Koreans if they are working as slave labor for the regime’s benefit.
That’s where promotion of human rights comes in. Real economic change requires North Korea to elevate the rights and status of its people, which Kim will do only if pushed. Unfortunately, Trump has taken the opposite approach. In several interviews, Trump has played down the Kim regime’s mass repression and parroted Kim’s lie that the North Korean people are happy with their situation.
That damages America’s image as a champion of human rights worldwide. But it also hurts Trump’s own ability to get what he wants, namely real change in North Korea. Human rights advocacy is also great leverage in negotiations. Trump realized that when he called out the “depraved character” of the Kim regime during his State of the Union address in January.
The president even invited North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho to the speech, recounting the story of Ji’s escape from North Korea as a starving teenager and double amputee. This week, Ji was in Washington again, this time with the message that Trump must put human rights back on the diplomatic agenda.
“We need to put the focus on North Korean people and think about how we can support these people and if there is support that comes, how are we going to ensure it goes to the right people and not the government,” Ji said Wednesday at a conference hosted by the National Endowment for Democracy.
The good news is, it’s not too late. As the Trump administration embarks on a long diplomatic negotiation, it can do many things. It should raise human rights inside the negotiations and condition any aid on the Kim regime ending its most odious practices — including running concentration camps where thousands of political prisoners suffer.
If the diplomatic process reaches the point where international inspectors are allowed inside North Korea, the United States should insist they have access to the camps as well. The Trump administration should also greatly expand support for government and civil society organizations that help get aid and information into North Korea.
Some argue that broad reform of North Korean society is too ambitious and advocate a straightforward trade of Kim’s nukes for bribes to the regime. That may be more prudent, but it was Trump who raised expectations by promising to bring North Korea into the community of nations.
As Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov said during his 1975 Nobel Peace Prize lecture, “international confidence, mutual understanding, disarmament, and international security are inconceivable without an open society with freedom of information, freedom of conscience, the right to publish, and the right to travel.”
Sustained and forceful advocacy of human rights for the North Korean people is not just the moral thing to do. It’s the only way Trump can realize his vision to bring about real economic transformation and real long-term peace — in North Korea.