Bencosme is advocacy manager for Asia Pacific at Amnesty International USA
Yet again, President Donald Trump has failed to raise North Korea’s dire human rights record at a major historical summit with Kim Jong Un. When asked about it during a press conference, Trump appears to have excused and enabled Kim Jong Un’s worst actions. He gave Kim a platform on the world stage only to showcase his own disdain for human rights.
What a reversal from the beginning of the Trump Administration, when Trump got in front of the U.S. Congress and pronounced his commitment to ensure freedom for the North Korean people. He did the same in front of the National Assembly in Seoul. Both instances took place before Trump and Kim “fell in love.” Time and time again, Trump continues to laud and relish his personal chemistry with Kim at the expense of spotlighting relentless and grave human rights violations. In Hanoi, he even took Kim’s words at face value concerning the death of the American citizen, Otto Warmbier.
Despite opening up to the outside world to discuss denuclearization and economic cooperation, North Korea has yet to show solid evidence of any improvements in its dire human rights record. There is no sign that grave and systematic human rights violations such as arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearances, are ending in the country. Some of these may amount to crimes against humanity. Judge Thomas Buergenthal, a co-author of a 2017 report from the International Bar Association War Crimes Committee, survived Auschwitz and said North Korea’s labor camps are as bad as those run by the Nazis.
As a result of Trump glossing over the regime’s actions, Kim Jong Un and other North Korean officials who are responsible for these crimes continue to go unpunished. The U.N. has recommended that its Security Council discuss actions regarding the human rights situation in North Korea, including possible referral to the International Criminal Court.
Up to 120,000 people remain in detention in four known political prison camps, where they are at risk of forced labor, executions and other human rights violations. Testimonies of North Koreans who left the country, together with satellite images, have proven the operation of these camps.
The North Korean government, however, continues to deny that they exist. Does Donald Trump take that at face value as well? The world must wonder. Human rights violators all around the world must as well. They see a U.S. President who is willing to excuse human rights violations, not just turning a blind eye.
North Koreans also remain restricted from freely expressing their opinions, and from communicating with the outside world. There are no independent newspapers, while access to the Internet is limited to select few. Families separated by the inter-Korean border find it almost impossible to stay in contact, as they face the risk of arbitrary surveillance, interference and detention by the authorities.
Pyongyang remains largely closed to the international community on the issue of human rights. Tomás Ojea Quintana, the U.N. expert on human rights in North Korea, has repeatedly requested a visit to the country, but this has never been granted. Non-governmental organizations that would like to visit the country to investigate its human rights situation are denied access.
While an announcement of the end of the Korean War is far from the instant solution to human rights situation, it could be the start of addressing certain issues. The reunion of thousands of families, separated on the two sides of the inter-Korean border because of the war, may become closer to a reality. The United States should announce the appointment of a North Korea human rights envoy who can begin to do the hard work of rebuilding human rights policies under a North Korea strategy that is in free-fall.
For years, Amnesty International has been told that concern for the rights and well-being of the North Korean people does not rise to the level of summit priorities that include denuclearization, security, and reunification. We disagree. Securing essential freedoms for the 25 million people in North Korea is just as important and will make progress on other issues more attainable. The people who yearn for freedom in North Korea need much more than yet another photo-op.