TOKYO — President Trump has said on several occasions that he is willing to talk to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Well, on Wednesday, Trump did — after a fashion.
The U.S. president directly addressed his 33-year-old nemesis in a speech to South Korea’s National Assembly. This time, Trump did not call Kim “Little Rocket Man” or use the kinds of rhetorical flourishes that play so well on Twitter.
But the words that Trump did use cut deeper, because they struck at the very heart of the Kim regime.
If there is one thing that Kim has shown he cannot tolerate, it is personal criticism.
“North Korea is not the paradise your grandfather envisioned,” Trump said to Kim, who, if he was in Pyongyang, was just 120 miles away. “It is a hell that no person deserves.”
Kim Il Sung, who is revered like a god in North Korean propaganda, established the country in 1948 as a “socialist paradise” of free housing, health care and education where people would want for nothing. Grandson Kim Jong Un claims his legitimacy as North Korea’s supreme leader by virtue of being a direct descendant of this quasi-deity.
Trump devoted a large part of his address to detailing the human rights abuses that the Kims have committed in North Korea, filling his speech with words such as “twisted,” “sinister,” “tyrant,” “fascism” and “cult.”
"I wanted to stand up from my seat and shout 'Yahoo!' " said Lee Hyeon-seo, an escapee from North Korea who was sitting in the assembly hall during Trump's address. "We just don't hear people talking about North Korea in this way in South Korea, so I was very emotional during the speech. I was very impressed."
In front of a National Assembly ruled by a left-wing party that favors engagement with North Korea and seeks to avoid antagonizing the regime, Trump noted the slave-like conditions North Korean workers face, the malnutrition among children, the suppression of religion and the forced-labor prison camps where he said North Koreans endure “torture, starvation, rape and murder on a constant basis.”
Other advocates for North Koreans expressed hope that Trump’s remarks would remind the world that the country is home not just to a dictator with nuclear weapons but also to 25 million people who suffer under him.
"President Trump spoke about human rights in North Korea more than any other previous U.S. president," said Jeong Kwang-il, who was held as a political prisoner in North Korea and now runs the No Chain for North Korea human rights group in Seoul. "I'm hopeful that American policy toward North Korea will focus more on improving human rights there."
The president did not mince words about the way the Kim regime has managed to retain its grip on the populace.
“North Korea is a country ruled as a cult,” he said. “At the center of this military cult is a deranged belief in the leader’s destiny to rule as parent-protector over a conquered Korean Peninsula and an enslaved Korean people.”
The success of South Korea discredited “the dark fantasy at the heart of the Kim regime,” Trump said.
It is hard to exaggerate the reverence with which North Koreans are forced to treat the Kim family. Every home and all public buildings must display portraits of Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il that must be cleaned only with a special cloth. North Koreans must bow at monuments to the leaders and sing songs celebrating their supposedly legendary feats.
There is no escaping the Kims and the narrative that they have created a utopia that is the envy of the world.
So to suggest that the regime is founded on a “fantasy” and that the country is something other than a socialist paradise amounts to heresy in North Korea.
“This speech made the ‘axis of evil’ speech look friendly,” said John Delury, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul, referring to President George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union speech, in which he included North Korea as a country seeking weapons of mass destruction. “That sent a signal to Pyongyang that the Americans are not open to changing their relationship with North Korea and that the president was deeply hostile and ideologically hostile to them.”
But others saw an opening from Trump, with his suggestion that there is a way out of the quagmire. “Despite every crime you have committed against God and man . . . we will offer a path to a much better future,” Trump said, noting that this would require total denuclearization.
Victor Cha, tipped to be Trump's nominee for ambassador to South Korea, wrote on Twitter that the president publicly offered a "diplomacy exit ramp" to the Kim regime.
At a news conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in the previous day, Trump urged North Korea “to come to the table” and “do the right thing, not only for North Korea but for humanity all over the world.”
At recent meetings near Geneva and in Moscow, Pyongyang’s representatives have signaled an interest in talks with the United States — as long as those talks are not about denuclearization, a nonstarter for Washington.
The regime in Pyongyang is likely to react angrily to Trump’s speech.
After Trump threatened at the U.N. General Assembly in September to “totally destroy” North Korea and mocked Kim as “Rocket Man,” Kim took the unprecedented step of releasing a statement in his own name, calling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” who would “pay dearly” for his threats.
At the same time, North Korea’s foreign minister said the country might detonate a nuclear device over the Pacific.
A U.N. commission of inquiry once charged that the blame for North Korea’s human rights abuses went all way to the top of the leadership, leading to calls for Kim Jong Un to be referred to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
That prompted North Korean officials to respond publicly to questions about human rights conditions in a way they had not before — a clear attempt to defend the dignity of their leader.
“North Korea tends to react sensitively to criticism in human rights,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the unification strategy program at the Sejong Institute, a private think tank in South Korea.
He predicted that the response this time would be especially sharp because of the time that Trump spent talking about North Korea and the detail he went into, plus the president’s repeated calls for the world to isolate the country.
“North Korea is highly likely to take Trump’s address as a declaration of war and call for a holy war of its own against the U.S.,” Cheong said.
Yoonjung Seo in Seoul contributed to this report.