It was just months ago when US President Donald Trump used his first State of the Union address to condemn the cruelty of North Korea’s government. But after his historic summit on Tuesday with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, whom he described as “very smart” and having a “great personality,” Trump seemed to play down the severity of human rights violations in North Korea.
“It’s rough,” Trump allowed after being asked about North Korea’s human rights record. He then said: “It’s rough in a lot of places, by the way. Not just there.”
“A lot of other people [have] done some really bad things. I mean, I could go through a lot of nations where a lotta bad things were done,” Trump said in another interview with Fox News.
North Korea stands accused of a litany of state-sanctioned rights abuses including torture, rape, execution and brutal crackdowns on dissent.
According to the US State Department, the North Korean regime holds between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners in forced labour camps, facing torture and forced starvation.
While Pyongyang officially denies this, outside governments and human rights group believe the country runs massive prison camps where people accused of political crimes are detained without trials and often without their families being notified about their whereabouts.
It’s believed that the inmates, many of them accused of insulting the North’s supreme leadership or attempting to escape to South Korea, are subject to horrific conditions. Inmates are often executed, some publicly, for disobeying orders, South Korea’s Korea Institute for National Unification, a state-sponsored think-tank, said in a study.
‘NOT A PRIORITY’
Few expected Trump to seriously raise North Korea’s horrific human rights problems during his first meeting with Kim, which was mainly about addressing the threat of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. Still, his post-summit comments drew an angry reaction from activists, who have spent years highlighting North Korea’s extensive crimes against humanity.
“By leaving human rights out of the final statement, the Trump administration effectively told North Korea that human rights are not a US priority,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, wrote. “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 healthcare.”
In his speech to Congress in January, Trump lashed out at the “depraved character” of Kim’s government. He pointed to invited family members of Otto Warmbier, a US detainee who died after returning from North Korea with severe injuries, and a North Korean defector who lost a leg while scrapping for food and traveled thousands of miles on crutches to escape.
“Some say Kim is ‘cute’ or ‘friendlier than expected,’ but they should not be deceived by Kim’s smiling face at this political show,” said Choi Jung-Hun, a North Korean defector living in Seoul.
The Kim family has ruled the impoverished, nuclear-armed nation with a pervasive personality cult and little tolerance for dissent.
Since assuming his father’s throne in 2011, Kim, a third-generation hereditary leader, has shown a brutal side while consolidating his power. In what critics called a “reign of terror,” Kim executed a slew of members of the North Korean old guard, including his uncle Jang Seong-thaek, who was convicted of treason, and senior government officials accused of slighting his leadership. Kim has also been accused of ordering the assassination of his estranged half brother, Kim Jong-nam, last year at a Malaysian airport by assailants using a highly-lethal nerve agent.
South Korea’s government said in 2016 that Kim ordered the execution the vice-premier, Kim Yong-jin. In 2015, South Korea’s spy agency said Kim Jong Un ordered his defence chief, Hyon Yong-chol, executed with an anti-aircraft gun in front of hundreds of spectators at a military shooting range.
In the build-up to the summit, more than 300 rights groups urged Pyongyang to improve its dire rights records.
Amnesty International also urged efforts to shed light on the “near total denial of human rights” in the North at the summit. “It would be deeply disappointing if the catastrophic human rights situation in North Korea is completely overlooked as diplomatic relations continue to thaw,” the organisation said.
The US State Department’s latest rights report on the North, released earlier this year, describes “egregious human rights violations” in the authoritarian state, from public executions to widespread surveillance of citizens.
Trump acknowledged earlier this month that he had not raised the issue of human rights during the preparation stage for the summit but on Tuesday said it had been discussed.
Choi urged the international community to see the “dark side behind the diplomatic reality show.”
“I really hoped that Trump raised the issue of human rights during the meeting with Kim... so that this dialogue would mean something even for poor North Koreans rotting in prison camps,” he said.