This article was originally published by the Asia Times.
After the historic summit in Singapore between the leaders of the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, President Donald Trump made concessions to Kim Jong-un in return for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Many worry Trump conceded too much for too little. But the biggest concession wasn’t offering to halt military exercises. It was in legitimizing Kim’s abysmal human-rights abuses on his own citizens.
“This regime has the worst human-rights record on Earth. This man runs concentration camps, deliberately starves people for control and assassinates members of his own family.” North Korean defector and author Park Yeon-mi reminded Trump in a video op-ed in The New York Times Monday.
Kim “is using this moment to sanitize his global image and prove how supreme he is at home,” Park warned. “As the leader of the free world, you must hold the world’s worst dictator accountable.”
In an interview of Trump on Tuesday by Voice of America, it became clear that human rights weren’t a big topic during the summit, and that he had played right into that trap.
While Trump did say human rights came up during the summit, despite talking “denuclearization 90% of the time,” his comments to VOA’s Greta Van Susteren were more approving than condemning.
“Really, [Kim’s] got a great personality. He’s a funny guy, he’s very smart, he’s a great negotiator,” Trump said.
And that was just the start. For five minutes, Trump showered Kim in praises. He repeated four times that Kim loves his people and his country.
In an interview with Fox News’ Bret Baier, Trump doubled down on his praise of Kim. When Baier mentioned Kim’s human-rights abuses, Trump brushed them off. He said that Kim had to be “tough” and “smart” to take over a country at 27 years old.
“But I think we understand each other,” Trump said.
“Well, he still has done some really bad things,” Baier pressed him.
“Yeah, but so have a lot of other people.”
Murdering his own uncle and brother to consolidate power? Detaining dissidents in brutal political prisons? Starving his own citizens?
“Loves his people,” Trump told Van Susteren. “Loves his country. He wants a lot of good things and that’s why he’s doing this [summit].”
It’s hard to see what good will come from such a drastic change in tone, though any attempts at de-escalation can be seen as an improvement when compared with the threat of nuclear war just a few short months ago, but the initial escalation can also be considered Trump’s own doing.
North Korea has a history of tit-for-tat military escalation, including during former South Korean president Park Geun-hye’s administration.
Kim Jong-un was drawn to negotiations by Moon Jae-in’s campaign promises to engage in dialogue with North Korea after the hardline conservative president Park was impeached in December of 2016.
I was in Seoul during the presidential election last year and recall an air of surprise at Kim’s willingness to negotiate with the liberal Democratic Party of Korea, which then set into motion Kim’s New Year address, in which he labeled former president Park’s party as a “conservative regime” and “fascist” and struck a cooperative chord with the South’s new government.
The Korean Peninsula’s subsequent cooperation led to unified teams in the 2018 Winter Olympics and the Panmunjom peace summit between Kim and Moon.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration was sending mixed signals, especially in the appointment of John Bolton as national security adviser. Bolton has long been an advocate of regime change in Pyongyang, called for the “Libya model” for North Korea’s nuclear disarmament, and was a part of the George W Bush administration’s decision to walk away from Bill Clinton’s Joint Framework Agreement of 1994.
That agreement had halted North Korea’s nuclear program for eight years until Bush famously called North Korea the “axis of evil” during his 2002 State of the Union address. Relations quickly plummeted.
So it’s clear that hawkish tactics and name-calling don’t work. But praising Kim Jong-un isn’t the right course of action, either. It trivializes millions of North Koreans’ suffering under Kim’s rule and feeds Pyongyang’s propaganda machine.
To end the VOA segment, Van Susteren asked,“What do you want to say directly to the citizens of North Korea?”
Trump replied: “Well, I think you have someone who has great feelings for them and he wants to do right by them.”