Natan Sharansky, a human-rights activist and former political prisoner in the Soviet Union, is head of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Ten years ago, I participated in a conference on North Korean human rights in Washington. Speaking with brave North Korean men and women who had chosen to oppose and escape from that terrifying regime, I was struck by the similarities between their experiences and those of dissidents in the U.S.S.R. In light of President Trump’s recent summit with Kim Jong Un, it bears remembering that the character of totalitarian rule, and the struggle for freedom against it, follows the same basic pattern the world over.
Citizens of fear societies such as North Korea — that is, societies in which individuals cannot enter into a public space and freely speak their minds without fear of physical harm — can be divided into three groups. On one side are true believers, those who genuinely support the regime and believe in its official ideology. On the other are dissidents, who are disaffected with their regime and willing to pay the often-terrible price of publicly opposing it.
In between stands a silent majority of double-thinkers, who question the justice of their government but are too terrified by the repercussions of dissent to speak out. The stronger the regime’s repressive reach, the fewer dissidents and the more double-thinkers there will be. On the other hand, the more the government appears vulnerable to pressure, the more emboldened individuals will feel to speak out and mobilize against it. In general the number of double-thinkers tends to grow with time, as citizens continue to experience the daily indignities and deep frustrations of life under repressive rule.
In the case of the Soviet Union, it was a combination of external pressure from world powers and internal pressure from dissidents that ultimately brought down the Iron Curtain. By linking their negotiations with Moscow to the latter’s respect for human rights, Western leaders put the regime on notice that they took the well-being of ordinary Soviet citizens seriously, and they gave us dissidents the confidence to challenge the regime knowing that they were on our side.
Sadly, the long-suffering people of North Korea are not yet in such a position. Although Trump’s meeting with Kim was a historic event with potentially dramatic consequences for nuclear disarmament, it is less clear — though no less important — what effect the meeting will have on the dismal human-rights situation inside the hermit kingdom. Dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington is commendable. Yet current and would-be dissidents also need reassurance that America and other world powers understand their struggle and will defend their basic rights.
It is unfortunate that some of Trump’s subsequent remarks have conveyed the opposite message. In the meeting’s aftermath, Trump said that Kim had proved himself “very talented” in taking over totalitarian rule from his father and averred that the young dictator “loves his country very much.” Even more troubling, he declared that North Koreans love Kim in return, supporting him with “great fervor.”
The president may have been attempting to solidify his newfound goodwill with Kim. Yet his comments are likely to have a deeply dispiriting effect on North Koreans.
Given the death grip of Kim’s regime on his people, relatively few North Koreans choose to cross the line between doublethink and open dissent. As the president himself pointed out in a moving speech last November, North Korea is a country where tens of thousands of citizens languish in gulags, subject to forced labor, torture, starvation and murder. It is a country where children can be beaten in school for forgetting a small detail about their ruler’s life. It is thus only natural that North Koreans overwhelmingly keep their doubts to themselves and publicly demonstrate their allegiance to Kim.
Trump may well understand this reality and know better than to believe in signs of loyalty and affection displayed under conditions of mortal fear. Yet he should also understand how demoralizing it is for dissidents, how discouraging it is for the silent majority of double-thinkers and how harmful it is to the strategic interests of the United States for him to commend a supposed love affair between Kim and his people. Such statements undermine America’s moral standing and dampen North Korean dissent, which is in fact the most powerful unconventional weapon in the fight against dictatorship.
There are many situations in which world powers must cooperate with dictators on security issues despite their human rights abuses. Even in the context of such tactical alliances, however, it is a mistake to praise relations between an unjust regime and those who suffer under it. Soviet dissidents were acutely sensitive to every statement coming from foreign leaders, relying heavily on the knowledge that they kept tabs on our fate and had not abandoned us to our tormentors. Just as standing firmly with dissidents back then furthered the long-term goals of the United States, so too standing with the North Korean people now will advance rather than hinder America’s objectives.
It is both a moral and a strategic imperative, then, for world leaders to bolster the men and women suffering under tyranny, not to betray them with false flattery or diplomatic courtesy toward their oppressors.