Human Rights an Afterthough in Summit 05/24 06:14
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Ahead of a planned summit with North Korean leader Kim
Jong Un, President Donald Trump's focus has been on stagecraft, the
will-they-or-won't-they drama and visions of a legacy-defining nuclear deal.
The human rights woes of North Koreans have been more of an afterthought.
Eager to pull off the historic meeting scheduled for June 12 in Singapore,
Trump this week expanded his promised "protections" for Kim should the North
Korean leader agree to give up his atomic program. Extending an olive branch,
Trump also entertained the idea of opening the spigot of foreign investment to
help secure Kim's rule.
"He will be safe. He will be happy. His country will be rich," Trump
declared. "His country will be hardworking and very prosperous."
White House officials say the plight of the North Korean people, who live
under one of the world's most repressive governments, is not currently a
priority for the summit. Trump hopes the meeting will yield an agreement by the
North to dismantle a nuclear program that could pose a direct threat to the
He's not the first U.S. leader to concentrate on the nuclear issue. The
thinking is that the North Koreans view the raising of human rights as
tantamount to advocating regime change and that bringing it up would only make
it harder to resolve the weapons program.
But the Trump administration's virtual silence on human rights in North
Korea since the president agreed in March to meet Kim, and the effusive thanks
from the president for releasing three American prisoners in a goodwill gesture
this month, has been striking. It underscores Trump's intent to reorient U.S.
foreign policy toward a more narrow consideration of the national interest.
The delicate balancing of U.S. needs and alliances with the promotion of
human rights abroad has long bedeviled American leaders. Trump has eschewed the
path of his predecessors, who have explicitly declared the promotion of human
rights to be in the national interest, even if they have been forced to make
Faustian bargains with unsavory actors.
The Trump administration appears to be more comfortable skirting the
pretense. The president's national security strategy, released in December,
said little on the subject. And it was left to his vice president, Mike Pence,
to elevate the issue during a February trip to the region.
While Trump has made gestures toward human rights issues in North Korea,
those efforts have largely been designed to increase pressure on the country's
government, as when Trump recognized a North Korean defector during his State
of the Union address in January and hosted a group of North Korean escapees in
the Oval Office.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, criticized Trump
for pledging to preserve Kim's stranglehold on power. "You shouldn't be giving
assurances to a totalitarian leader," he said.
Sifton added that the North's nuclear program has been supported by its use
of forced labor.
A senior White House official said Trump and his advisers see the
president's foreign policy as driven by the interests of the American people
rather than matters such as human rights. A second official said Trump and his
team believe a human rights push is inherently part of the president's message
that North Korea would see massive foreign investment if it denuclearizes
because it would help alleviate the conditions of the North Korean people and
could even lead to a more democratic and open system. The officials were not
authorized to discuss internal thinking by name and spoke on condition of
Trump is facing calls from Capitol Hill to not ignore Kim's human rights
record during the potential sit-down --- and failure to address those concerns
could hamstring the congressional approvals likely required for any agreement
The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob
Menendez of New Jersey, said Wednesday that the North's human rights record
needs to be addressed. "The Trump administration must elevate human rights and
the fundamental issue of human dignity to be part of the agenda for any meeting
with Kim Jong Un," he said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told lawmakers Wednesday that he had raised
the issue of human rights with Kim "and it will be part of the discussions as
we move forward."
White House press secretary Sarah Huckakbee Sanders on Tuesday defended the
morality of offering assurances to Kim. "The goal and the purpose of these
conversations would be to have complete and total denuclearization of the
Peninsula," she said.
Kim is on a Treasury Department blacklist for human rights abuses, removal
from which Sifton said is a likely concession Kim will seek. He added that Kim
should not be granted that request as part of denuclearization talks because
"you're basically saying we're going to give you a pass on human rights if you
The U.S. imposed those sanctions two years ago as part of the Obama
administration's effort to isolate North Korea, but it came as the North Korean
government rapidly developed its nuclear program. It was the first time that
Kim had been personally sanctioned and the first time that any North Korean
officials had been blacklisted in connection with rights abuses. Announcing the
sanctions, the U.S. accused North Korea of cruelty and hardship, "including
extrajudicial killings, forced labor and torture."
White House officials have pushed back publicly against the notion that
Trump has deprioritized international human rights. They point to Trump's
rollback of his predecessor's opening with Cuba and his comments about the
devastation wrought by the Islamic State group and Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
But the list of countries on which Trump has been largely silent about human
rights includes Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Philippines. Trump's
State Department has been critical of those countries, particularly in its
annual report on human rights released last month, but the president has often
gone out of his way to avoid criticizing those countries' leaders personally.
Just last week, before Trump hosted the president of Uzbekistan at the White
House, officials emphasized to reporters that Trump would raise the issue of
human rights in the country, but the president made no public mention of the
Asked last year aboard Air Force One while flying from China to Vietnam
about his responsibility to raise the issue of human rights with his
counterparts, Trump suggested that tabling the issue in an effort to cut other
deals is in the greater good.
"We can save many, many, many lives by making a deal with Russia having to
do with Syria," he said.