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Trump is missing his opportunity to press Kim Jong Un on human rights

Pushing for human rights in North Korea would be the moral and practical thing to do.

A man stands in front of barracks and bare dirt at North Korea’s gulag in Siberia, Khabarovsk Territory, Chegdomynsky District, Zimovye, 2001.
North Korea’s gulag in Siberia, Khabarovsk Territory, Chegdomynsky District, Zimovye, 2001, where North Korea also holds prisoners.
Laski Diffusion/Getty Images

President Donald Trump keeps saying that North Korea has the potential to become a great economic power if only it would part with its nuclear arsenal. But there’s a problem: Trump is ignoring one of the biggest things that would actually bring more wealth and prosperity to the severely impoverished nation: human rights.

Trump is currently meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for their second summit, this time held in Vietnam. The president’s main goal at the two-day meeting is to convince Kim to give up the nuclear program it took his country decades to build.

But what Trump won’t be doing, it seems, is pressuring Kim to improve his nation’s abysmal human rights record. Experts say Kim (like his father before him) has put thousands of his own citizens in labor camps, tortured and arbitrarily arrested people, and starved tens of thousands more.

One particularly chilling report from 2017 found North Korea’s labor camps to be as bad as those run by the Nazis. And one of the report’s authors, Thomas Buergenthal, had survived Auschwitz.

The Trump administration spent ample time during its first two years lambasting Pyongyang over human rights, leading Trump to highlight the issue during his 2018 State of the Union address: “[N]o regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea,” he said.

But now that Trump is alongside Kim — offering him a massive opportunity to elevate the issue — it appears that he won’t bring it up.

That’s shocking for two main reasons.

First, the moral one: The United States is supposed to be the champion of human rights around the world, pushing illiberal countries to improve the lives of their citizens. Not forcing Kim to answer for his human rights abuses — or even allowing the press to ask the dictator questions about it — lets Kim off the hook.

It’s possible the Trump administration could press Kim on human rights in private, merely avoiding doing so in public in an effort to keep the talks on track. But that of course isn’t enough, as it keeps the issue out of the limelight.

Second, the practical one: Experts say North Korea couldn’t actually reap the full economic benefits of denuclearization unless and until it stops violating human rights. “Many sanctions cannot be lifted if North Korea only makes progress on denuclearization,” Olivia Enos, a North Korea expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told me. “North Korea must make improvements on human rights, too.”

Multiple US administrations have sanctioned North Korea over its human rights abuses. Those measures can’t come off unless Pyongyang has made active improvements on that front. That means even if North Korea does start to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, the US can’t lift all of its financial penalties.

If Trump really does want to help unleash North Korea’s economic potential, as he reiterated in Vietnam on Wednesday, he has to persuade Kim to stop needlessly harming thousands of his own citizens.