This week, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un will meet for the second time. The fact that they are meeting again to talk is in itself historic for, after all, as Winston Churchill said, “jaw jaw” is better than “war war”, and just year ago President Trump was threatening “fire and fury”, comparing the size of his arsenal and mocking Kim as “Rocket Man”. Their talks may lead nowhere, but not talking guarantees no progress. Their first meeting in Singapore appears to have yielded nothing tangible, but persistence is a virtue.
However, there is an enormous elephant in the room which was ignored in their first meeting in Singapore, and which can be pushed aside no longer: North Korea’s horrific human rights record. Five years ago this month, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry published a damning report that found that “the gravity, scale and nature” of the appalling human rights violations by North Korea’s regime “reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”. Kim Jong-Un’s crimes, the UN inquiry concluded, amount to crimes against humanity. The perpetrators, the inquiry recommended, should be held to account at the International Criminal Court.
The decision to ignore North Korea’s human rights crisis in the first Trump-Kim summit, and in all the meetings which South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in has held with Kim, was regrettable, mistaken but perhaps understandable. My own preference would have been to put the human dignity of the North Korean people and the security of the world together and begin a process of addressing human rights alongside denuclearisation from the start, but there may be an argument that to build trust one has to tread gently in the first meeting. It’s debatable. Either way, a decision to exercise careful diplomacy in the first meeting would be exposed as blatant and immoral appeasement in the second if human rights do not feature on the agenda in Hanoi.
For if these talks are to mean anything, the goal must be peace. Not containment, not a pause in hostile rhetoric, not gesture politics, but peace. And peace can only be achieved when the people of North Korea and South Korea can live without fear – not only without fear of a nuclear attack or an invasion, but without fear of incarceration in a gulag, without fear of horrific torture, slave labour and sexual violence, without fear of starvation, without fear of execution.
Peace can only be achieved when the dignity and basic freedoms of the people of North Korea are respected and protected, when North Koreans can write an article or read the Bible or listen to foreign radio or watch a South Korean drama with the same ease as their fellow Koreans south of the demilitarised zone.
Peace does not mean just putting Kim’s nuclear programme on hold, though that of course would be a good start; nor does it mean building a Trump Tower in Pyongyang, which would be of questionable value. Peace means letting the people of North Korea sleep easy at night and breathe normally by day.
Coming back to the specific priority of this engagement – North Korea’s denuclearisation – this, too, is in fact a human rights issue. As the Australian judge who chaired the UN inquiry, Justice Michael Kirby, has said, the nuclear programme is one of North Korea’s biggest human rights abuses – because of the resources it diverts from the North Korean people, and because, if ever deployed, such weapons threaten the most basic right, the right to life, on a massive scale. So put that way, surely the whole catalogue of human rights abuses in North Korea should be part of the discussions?
There are two models for peace negotiations. There is the appeasement model of Neville Chamberlain at Munich, and there is the defence of freedom model of Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate.
Chamberlain thought he could strike a deal with Adolf Hitler, turn a blind eye to Nazi atrocities, and stave off the threat of war. He returned waving a piece of paper and claiming “peace”, only for that piece of paper to blow away in the wind and prove worthless within months. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, helped liberate millions of people and bring down the Iron Curtain, because he placed human liberty at the heart of his dialogue with Mikhail Gorbachev, stood firm in defence of freedom, and linked human dignity together with peace.
The last time President Trump and Mr Kim met, in Singapore, it was on the 31st anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech. As President Reagan said: “There stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds ... freedom and security go together”. The “advance of human liberty”, he argued, “can only strengthen the cause of world peace.”
So, Mr Trump, who is your role model? Chamberlain or Reagan? Where do the basic freedoms and dignity of the North Korean people feature in your art of the deal? If, through dialogue, you are able to unlock the gates of North Korea’s prison camps, the world will applaud you. But if, through dialogue, your only achievement is to pause Kim’s nuclear programme and allow him more cognac, and you return waving a piece of paper labelled ‘Peace in our time’ and demand, with all absurdity, the Nobel Peace Prize, you will go down in history as sub-Chamberlainesque. It is your choice.
Benedict Rogers works for the human rights organization CSW based in London, and is the co-founder of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea.