SEOUL – Absent from the recent summit between the leaders of North and South Korea was Pyongyang’s human rights record, and the issue appears to have faded from U.S. President Donald Trump’s public agenda as he prepares for his own meeting with Kim Jong Un.
Rights activists and North Korean defectors fear that when Trump sits down with Kim, he may avoid the thorny issue of rights altogether if that helps seal a deal on getting North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons.
Just a few months ago, rights abuses were a focal point of Trump’s criticism of North Korea, along with its pursuit of nuclear-armed missiles. Trump called Kim “obviously a madman who doesn’t mind starving or killing his people”.
More recently, Trump called Kim “very honorable” and “open”.
“President Trump should raise human rights concerns with Kim Jong Un, but I would be very surprised if he does,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of advocacy group Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “He will not let human rights stand in the way of a deal, that’s for sure.”
Former U.S. officials and diplomats have criticized Trump for often playing down rights in his foreign policy, except when it comes to abuses by certain U.S. adversaries like Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea — at least until recently.
The White House did not respond immediately to a question on whether Trump would raise human rights broadly with Kim at their summit. But it referred to Trump’s recent assurance to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that he would bring up the issue of North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens.
The U.S. State Department said on May 2 that it remained “gravely concerned and deeply troubled” by rights abuses and “will continue to press for accountability for those responsible”.
Last month, the State Department labeled China, Russia, Iran and North Korea as “morally reprehensible” governments it said violated human rights within their borders on a daily basis, making them “forces of instability”.
During his visit to Pyongyang last month, then-CIA director Mike Pompeo also spoke to Kim about the fate of three American citizens held in North Korea, and in a tweet on Thursday, Trump said to “stay tuned” for news of the men.
The North Korean mission at the United Nations did not respond to requests for comment, but state media has released a steady flow of commentaries in recent weeks, warning that taking issue with rights could undermine the recent detente.
U.N. investigators have reported the use of political prison camps, starvation and executions in North Korea, saying security chiefs and possibly even Kim himself should face international justice.
Between 80,000 and 120,000 people are held in four known North Korean political prison camps, the U.N.’s top North Korea rights official reported last year.
Kim himself is suspected of ordering the assassination of his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, in Malaysia in February 2017, as well as the execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, in 2013.
But South Korean officials not only did not make rights a major feature of last week’s summit, they also agreed to stop propaganda broadcasts and leaflet distributions on their border, disappointing some defectors pressing for better rights in the reclusive country.
For decades, with only a few breaks, the two sides have pumped out propaganda at each other, with the South broadcasting a mixture of news, Korean pop songs and criticism.
“I am counting on President Trump,” said Kim Seong-min, a defector who runs Free North Korea Radio, which broadcasts from Seoul into the North.
“Without improving people’s lives in the North, what’s the point of having those summits? Those statements do not mean anything if they do not help North Koreans.”
Officials close to South Korean President Moon Jae-in — himself a former rights lawyer — say that rashly pushing rights can be counterproductive.
Weeks before the inter-Korean summit, North Korean media warned South Korean officials to “behave with discretion,” saying that criticizing the North’s rights record was tantamount to “throwing a stone to the thin ice-like North-South relations”.
South Korean officials said the two Korean leaders discussed some general rights issues when they met, including an agreement to facilitate visits for families divided by the 1950-53 Korean war, and Moon brought up the issue of Japanese abductees.
While limited in scope, talking is better than previous periods of no communication at all, and the two Koreas did discuss allowing visits by families divided by the 1950-1953 Korean War, a spokesman for South Korea’s presidential Blue House said.
Past efforts to improve North Korea’s rights have often focused too much on political and social rights, while neglecting basic needs, said Moon Chung-in, special adviser to the South Korean president for foreign affairs and national security.
Moon referred to hard-line approaches by previous South Korean governments, which often led North Korea to restrict or reject humanitarian aid efforts.
“Who will be suffering as a result of that approach? North Korean citizens.”
But Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector who was invited to Trump’s State of the Union speech in January to highlight rights abuses, said he hoped international leaders would press Kim.
“People cannot speak out, they will probably face death if they state their views. People outside North Korea should tell the world about their human rights and lead to changes.”