As counterproliferation experts and seasoned North Korea watchers have concluded in parsing the joint communique to Tuesday’s summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, no significant or tangible steps were actually taken toward denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. The joint statement released after the meeting, most of which had been agreed to beforehand, committed North Korea to nothing. The two sides essentially agreed to do what they have already decided to do — continue negotiating.
North Korea, which made only vague rehashed pledges, gained significant concessions, including a halt to joint U.S.-South Korea war games. Meanwhile, China, which helped broker and leaven the summit, has relaxed its recently stepped-up enforcement of the UN sanctions, an important piece of leverage on Kim.
One leading counterproliferation expert, Jeffrey Lewis, called the agreement “a joke.” Eliot Cohen, a senior official in George W. Bush’s State Department, said Trump was essentially conning the U.S. media market for political purposes: “He’s a huckster and a fantasist. This is all the fast talk of a New York grifter. You can’t believe any of it.”
Kim, in achieving the remarkable diplomatic feat of transforming from ruthless dictator to world statesmen in just a few months, seems to have learned something from his friend, former NBA star Dennis Rodman, also on hand in Singapore for the summit circus. Indeed, North Korea is now in a position to do what Rodman memorably did exactly 20 years ago on the same night as the summit, during the crucial final minute of Game 3 of the 1998 NBA finals: grab the ball, hold on, and let the clock run out. Kim can now keep talking, keep the clock running, gain legitimacy on the world stage, and ultimately “win,” when the world finally concedes on North Korea’s status as a nuclear power.
The news is even worse for the people of North Korea, who daily suffer from the Kim regime’s totalitarian abuses. In burnishing Kim’s stature, the deal may well end up indefinitely entrenching his rule.
In a news conference Tuesday, when asked about prisoners in North Korea’s vast network of labor camps and gulags, Trump tried to suggest that they were “great winners” because of the summit, presumably on a vague and unsupported theory that denuclearization (which isn’t likely to happen anytime soon) will somehow lead to improvements in North Korea’s human rights record.
There is no evidence that the summit made progress on human rights. Trump wasn’t even able to secure a passing reference in a nonbinding joint communique. How will the U.S. ever be able to achieve actual progress on human rights issues in subsequent negotiations, if the issues aren’t even on the table and there’s no pressure on Kim to make changes.
The hundreds of thousands of North Koreans being brutalized daily in prisons and labor camps and gulags in the mountains are not “winners” now and they won’t be tomorrow. Nor are the millions of other North Koreans who are routinely subjected to forced labor and deprived of basic rights, ranging from freedom of speech and assembly to adequate food, housing, education, and health care.
Notably, Trump’s language about human rights at Tuesday’s news conference was dramatically weaker than the “cruel dictatorship” language he has used before, for instance in his January State of the Union address and his November 2017 speech before South Korea’s parliament, in which he outlined the government’s grotesque record of abuse.
The vacillations between condemnation and praise reveal what we all know: Trump doesn’t really care about human rights. But he does care about making an impression and making a deal. So here is a hard truth that his cabinet can hopefully explain to him: There will never be meaningful progress on a deal unless there is a counterproliferation verification process. And a verification process will require at least some human rights reforms, including cooperation with the UN system and its human rights bodies. While it is possible to carry out verifications in an authoritarian country like Iran, it’s far harder to achieve a durable and fully verifiable denuclearization in a country that is completely closed and utterly totalitarian.
Moreover, it is likely that Kim knows that North Koreans have a growing awareness of their unfortunate situation in the world, and has realized that to remain in power he will need to deliver a more prosperous and stable life for them—one of the points that the White House seemed to be making in the hyper-schlocky mock-film trailer that they showed to Kim in Singapore. But Kim can’t accomplish that without opening the door to more than simply weapons inspectors. In that sense, human rights are already on the agenda.
In any case, the parties have no choice but to discuss human rights as negotiations progress, since by law the bulk of U.S. sanctions for human rights abuses can’t be suspended until North Korea’s rights record improves. The success of future talks cannot hang on giving Kim a pass on his totalitarianism. Human rights are on the agenda whether the negotiating parties want it or not.
Addressing the plight of North Korea’s long-suffering population means repeatedly raising concerns about Kim’s human rights record — forcefully, publicly, and without apology — and instilling in him the point that sanctions were imposed on him for his human rights record, not just his weapons proliferation. The United States can keep talking to Kim, but praises and pulled punches are irresponsible and counter-productive.
Real diplomatic progress demands clear-eyed acknowledgment that Kim has to commit to more than stemming proliferation activities. He will also have to open his prisons to human rights monitors, undertake labor reforms, establish real relationships with UN agencies, and implement numerous other recommendations by their human rights bodies. The key factor behind these demands is not flattery but rather the targeted, hard sanctions that the US has imposed on Kim and his government for their past abuses. Kim isn’t going to be morally persuaded or cajoled into improving his government’s human rights record. He will need to be compelled.
John Sifton is Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter at @johnsifton.