By The Dallas Morning News
Americans can be forgiven for not knowing much about North Korea, a shut-in nation that has been locked in a Marxist time capsule of oppression and desperation for some 70 years. But forgiveness isn’t something that should be extended to North Korea.
As President Donald Trump now engages in a pre-negotiations tit-for-tat with Kim Jong Un, the dictator of Pyongyang, it is important to remember who the interlocutors will be if this much-hyped summit takes place and what can produce the long-term outcome that we need.
Let’s start with a little information about the Hermit Kingdom. Following the end of World War II, the Korean peninsula was divided in half. North Korea was founded in 1948 and invaded the South in 1950. The war that ensued ended in cease-fire in 1953.
What has followed in the decades since is an advertisement of the stark differences between free societies and societies that are bent on autocratic rule. Satellite imagery of the two countries at night clearly shows the benefit the South has enjoyed for embracing democracy and an open economy. The North appears as a dark, desolate land. Meanwhile, the South is illuminated along the lines you would expect of a modern economy.
Piercing the Darkness
That is where most Americans are tempted to stop thinking about North Korea. But it is both possible and important to pierce the darkness of the North. Doing so gives us a better understanding of Kim’s motivations and long-term intentions.
There is no other country as closed off from the world as North Korea. The regime there maintains vast prison camps and consigns entire families to years of hard labor for even trivial infractions.
One survivor of these camps is Kang Chol-Hwan, the author of the internationally acclaimed book The Aquariums of Pyongyang. He came to see us recently and relayed his harrowing tale. He was arrested at the age of 9 and spent a decade in the Yodok concentration camp, the notorious Camp 15 that imprisons enemies of the state, for crimes committed by a member of his family.
Today, Kang is a thin, distinguished gentleman who speaks softly and sparingly as a translator relays his comments, but he doesn’t mince words. In describing the brutal conditions of the camps, he talks of mass starvation and fighting for the smallest morsels, including portions of mice that prisoners captured. Without hyperbole, he compares conditions to those witnessed under Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.
After he was released from prison, he fled and made his way to South Korea in the early 1990s. He came to see us to make the case for making human rights a top negotiating priority when Trump sits down with Kim.
Kang argues that Kim may be in a weaker position than we can reliably know. He argues that Kim is likely only coming to the table because international sanctions are undermining his ability to rule. Kim has repeatedly purged top officials, including killing members of his own family. This might be evidence that the upper echelons are fighting among themselves as available resources dwindle.
The Importance of Human Rights
In any case, the point embedded in Kang’s message is that North Korea’s treatment of its own people reveals its depraved nature as well as points where pressure could be applied. The regime survives, in part, by brainwashing and intimidating its people. But given the chance and a little knowledge of the outside world, people flee.
So if the regime is forced through desperation to create even small openings to make its economy viable, it also risks arming its people with information about the outside world. And small as it may seem, that would create additional pressure on what may already be a brittle regime.
The point is that Kim has a lot to lose in the high-stakes negotiations he has forced on the world by pressing forward with his country’s nuclear and missile programs.
Trump took a gamble in agreeing to the summit in the first place, not least of all because he risks extending the prestige of the presidency to a dictator in need of all the propping up he can get.
Other presidents, including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, used sticks and carrots in the hope of getting something out of the North. In the end, North Korea never seems to improve its behavior, but that doesn’t mean it holds the upper hand.
Trump should insist on making human rights a top priority of any talks. By doing so, he’ll command the moral heights over Kim Jong Un and negotiate the fate of Kim’s nuclear program from a position that will place him on the right side of history.