In June 2017, just five months after President Trump took office, American college student Otto Warmbier died shortly after being released from captivity in North Korea.
In response, Trump pledged that he would press North Korea on its human rights abuses. He raised concerns over Pyongyang’s systemic human rights violations in front of South Korean lawmakers in late 2017 and again in his State of the Union address early the next year.
Since then, however, the White House has gone nearly silent on such issues. And as Trump meets North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi this week, human rights advocates don’t expect their concerns to come up at the summit.
“Human rights have been relegated to the bottom of the discussion,” Francisco Bencosme, the Asia advocacy manager at Amnesty International USA, told The Washington Post by telephone Tuesday.
Robert King, who served as the State Department’s special envoy for North Korea on human rights issues during the Obama administration, told NPR on Monday that “Trump has used human rights not as something we need to work on but as a stick to beat the North Koreans until they come around to talking about nuclear weapons.”
The White House’s recent silence on human rights issues in North Korea “really undermines how sincere Trump’s words were in the beginning,” Bencosme said. In an email, a spokesperson for the National Security Council said "the United States remains deeply concerned about [North Korea’s] human-rights situation.”
“We continue to work with all concerned nations to raise awareness, promote access to accurate, independent information, and urge [North Korea] to respect human rights,” the spokesperson said.
Because of North Korea’s tight restrictions on human rights groups and the media, it’s difficult to collect testimony about abuses from inside the country. But in 2014, a U.N. human rights commission released a report stating that North Korea was committing “widespread and gross human rights violations,” some of which amounted to crimes against humanity.
North Korean officials used torture in interrogation, the report said, and people who are found guilty of large-scale political crimes are “disappeared” to prison camps, where they stay without communication with the outside world. At times, multiple generations of a family were sent to such camps when one member was found guilty of a crime.
The commission reported that hundreds of thousands of inmates were believed to have died in the past five decades, and that “the inmate population 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.”
Last year, Human Rights Watch released an 86-page report detailing human rights violations allegedly committed in North Korea. The report, which was based on testimony from more than 50 North Koreans who left the country, included testimony from women who said police officers, detention-facility guards and other men in positions of power regularly assaulted women.
Olivia Enos, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian studies center, told The Post that Trump’s failure to raise human rights issues during his summit with Kim in Singapore last year was a “huge missed opportunity . . . to really shift Kim Jong Un’s risk calculus and to communicate to him that he cannot be viewed as a respected leader when he has between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners in prison camps."
Human rights concerns may have been shelved out of fears that they would derail nuclear diplomacy. In November, the Associated Press reported that North Korea accused Washington of “stoking confrontation” between the two countries when it called for the U.N. Security Council to meet on the subject of human rights abuses.
But Enos dismissed the idea that raising allegations of human rights abuses could upset talks with North Korea. Washington’s policies on denuclearization and security are inextricably linked to human rights concerns, she said, noting that Trump could, at the very least, focus on incremental improvements to conditions inside the country.
“I don’t believe you can go into every meeting with all guns blazing and always address the most difficult issues, but you absolutely should not be silent,” she said.