by Phil Robertson
President Donald Trump shook hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and called him a “terrific leader” who loves his country.
The dictator from Pyongyang certainly has a strange way of showing it, keeping over 100,000 of his fellow citizens in abject misery in mountain gulags.
Despite North Korea being subject to US sanctions on human rights grounds and the locus of ongoing crimes against humanity according to the UN, Kim Jong Un and Trump were all smiles in Singapore. The final communique signed by the two leaders explains why. Amid the promises of de-nuclearization, security, peace on the Korean peninsula, and returning the remains of US soldiers from the Korean War, there was no mention anywhere of human rights.
At his post-summit news conference Trump told reporters that the people in Kim’s prison camps were the “great winners” today. In fact, North Koreans looked more like the big losers from the meeting: by leaving human rights out of the final statement, the Trump administration effectively told North Korea that human rights are not a US priority.
For North Koreans, this means continued public executions, restrictions on movement, brutally punishing three generations of a family when one member “offends,” and an absolute prohibition on any civil and political rights, on top of inadequate access to food, housing, education, and health care. Try speaking out against the government, or holding a public protest, and it’s a one-way ticket to the kwan-li-so, as North Korea’s notorious political prisoner camps are known.
North Korea is not a normal government, not by a long shot, and if Pyongyang wants to come in from the cold and end its pariah status, it needs to accept human rights accountability and reforms, starting by closing its gulags and letting prisoners return home. Even Trump admitted this during a visit to Seoul six months ago, when he referred to life in the North as “a hell that no person deserves.”
Let’s not forget that the things which got Kim Jong Un a seat opposite Donald Trump – his ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons program – are only made possible by Pyongyang using forced labor and diverting scarce resources from food to the military. This is what makes Kim Jong Un’s system tick. The North Korean people know that, so why couldn’t Trump figure it out?
Phil Robertson is deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, which oversees the organization’s work throughout Asia, especially in Southeast Asia, North Korea and Japan.
Prior to joining Human Rights Watch in 2009, he worked for more than a decade in Southeast Asia on human rights, labor rights, protection of migrant workers, and counter-human trafficking efforts with a variety of non-governmental organizations, international and regional trade union federations, and UN agencies. As program manager of the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP), he oversaw the successful negotiation of the first regional inter-governmental agreement on human trafficking in the greater Mekong sub-region. Prior to UNIAP, he led the Mainland Southeast Asia office of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, working on trade union rights, democratic political reform, and rights of migrant workers, focusing primarily on Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and Thailand. A 1997 graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, he is fluent in Thai and Lao.
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