SEOUL — The goals and gripes for the upcoming Singapore summit between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un are on display along a busy boulevard within shouting distance of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul.
On one patch of sidewalk, protesters chant for a drawdown of American forces in South Korea. Nearby, a woman holds a placard denouncing South Korea’s president and alleging appeasement of Kim Jong Un’s regime.
Down the block, another group demands that Trump remember North Korea’s record of human rights abuses and atrocities when he meets Kim on Tuesday.
The demonstrations reflect one of the biggest wild cards in the encounter. Depending on whom you ask, pressing Kim over the North’s decades of repression is either a political and moral imperative or a potential dealbreaker that could threaten the bigger aim of ending Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
Trump is certain to face international blowback if he ignores the state-sponsored cruelties perpetrated by the Kim family — which include political gulags, torture, summary executions and show trials, according to accounts from defectors, clandestine activists and investigators. A U.N. report in 2014 said the practices “may amount to crimes against humanity,” and legal rights groups and others continue to press for Kim’s indictment by the International Criminal Court.
But other voices, including a top former nuclear negotiator for South Korea, worry that raising human rights too soon and too directly could enrage Kim and derail any progress toward nuclear concessions. South Korean President Moon Jae-in also has carefully sidestepped rights issues in his two face-to-face meetings with Kim, sending an apparent signal that the South’s government prefers to cultivate the outreach rather than risk having it unravel.
In late April — when the status of the Kim-Trump summit was still unclear but parallel Korea talks were picking up — North Korean state media outlets warned that any criticism of the country’s human rights situation could “pour cold water” on plans for the leaders to meet.
Joanna Hosaniak, deputy director general of the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, a group based in Seoul, said that “there is a long tradition of making U.S. policies conditional on human rights.”
“It would be difficult,” she said, “and quite surprising, if Trump reversed these policies and made this just about trying to win something on the nuclear side.”
Trump, in his signature style, has left everyone guessing.
At times, he has hammered Kim’s regime for its rogue-state status on rights. For example, he called the North “a hell that no person deserves” in a speech to South Korean lawmakers in November. But last week in Washington, Trump said he avoided any mention of rights issues while meeting with Kim’s personal envoy, Kim Yong Chol.
Trump later told reporters that the North’s rights record “could” be raised in Singapore and “maybe in great detail.” The White House has not clarified its plans.
That leaves some of Trump’s allies trying to keep human rights front and center.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) warned earlier this week of serious fallout if the Trump administration fails to hold Kim accountable “for being one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.”
In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made clear he wants Trump to bring up decades-old incidents of North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens. North Korea has admitted to kidnapping 13 people from Japan in the 1970s and 1980s to train as spies and sending five back to the country. Japan suspects hundreds more may have been taken captive.
Meanwhile, any progress in the Singapore talks will further stoke the appetites of businesses in the region to join a possible rush to invest.
But nothing can get underway without a rollback of U.N. economic sanctions on North Korea and other measures, such as Treasury Department blocks against dozens of North Korean businesses, vessels and people believed linked to the North’s missile and nuclear weapons programs.
“There is incentive from the North Korea side to get off that [Treasury Department] list,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “There will have to be some discussion over human rights for this to happen.”
Whether it could begin in Singapore remains an open question.
Trump praised Kim last month after the release of three Americans held by North Korea. One of the freed men, Kim Dong Chul, said he was forced to perform labor while imprisoned. Vice President Pence said another detainee apparently rarely saw daylight during his confinement.
Last year, a White House statement condemned “the brutality of the North Korean regime” after the death of Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student, just days after being returned to his home in Ohio in a coma following more than 17 months in North Korean custody. In April, Warmbier’s parents filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the Kim regime violated international law by torturing and detaining their son, who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for crimes against the state, for allegedly trying to take a propaganda poster from a Pyongyang hotel.
In March, the State Department leveled additional sanctions against North Korea after investigators determined that the powerful nerve agent VX was used by Kim’s regime in an apparent state-directed killing of his estranged half brother, Kim Jong Nam, at the Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia in 2017.
Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a Washington-based group, said it could be a now-or-never moment for the United States to put human rights on the table. It will be increasingly difficult, he added, to add human rights to possible follow-up talks if a framework is set.
“It would be a moral, ethical and political mistake to let this moment pass without bringing up North Korea’s horrible human right record,” Scarlatoiu said.
But Chun Yung-woo, a former national security adviser in South Korea, said North Korea views pressure over human rights as part of wider “hostile U.S. policies” aiming at bringing down the regime. Raising the issue directly with Kim could send the talks into a tailspin, warned Chun, who took part in six-nation nuclear talks with North Korea that began in 2003 and collapsed six years later.
“You have to be careful not to push too hard,” he said, adding that “the wheels of the nuclear talks will break down under the weight of talking about human rights.”