Just over a week ago, US President Donald Trump met with Kim Jong-Un, leader of the world’s most repressive regime which has been accused by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry of “crimes against humanity”. It was historic – the first time a sitting American President and a North Korean dictator had met face-to-face.
On the surface, in words attributed to Winston Churchill, “jaw jaw” has to be better than “war war”. It is good that the two men have moved from talk of “fire and fury” and whose nuclear button is bigger to discussion of denuclearisation, peace and prosperity. Perhaps a new era may be dawning.
However, one very fundamental issue seemed to be missing from the agenda: the human rights of the people of North Korea.
“However, one very fundamental issue seemed to be missing from the agenda: the human rights of the people of North Korea.”
CSW has been documenting the human rights crisis in the world’s most closed nation for almost two decades. Our report, North Korea: A Case to Answer, A Call to Act, was one of the first human rights reports to call for a UN Commission of Inquiry, in 2007. We co-founded the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea in 2011. We led the applause for the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry when it came in 2013, gave evidence to its hearings, and have championed its recommendations since its report was released in 2014. Two years ago we released a new report on violations of freedom of religion or belief in North Korea – Total Denial – and earlier this year we published a ground-breaking new report on changes in the country over the last decade, titled Movies, Markets and Mass Surveillance. And just before the summit, CSW joined over 300 other non-governmental organisations in sending a letter to Kim Jong-Un, urging him to make “lasting improvements to the dire human rights situation”.
“Every one of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ thirty articles is denied or violated in North Korea – in particular freedom of religion or belief.”
Every one of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ thirty articles is denied or violated in North Korea – in particular freedom of religion or belief. If you identify as a Christian in North Korea, you are risking a death sentence. Christians worshipping in secret risk certain incarceration in a prison camp, and possible execution.
Over the years, we have interviewed – and hosted – North Korean escapees, giving them platforms to tell their horrific tales of torture first-hand. It is therefore no surprise that they feel angry at the way last week’s summit proceeded. Kim Yong-hwa said that it was like “stabbing the heart” of North Koreans. Jung Gwang-il, who met President Trump earlier this year, says he feels let down.
To sideline human rights is disappointing enough, but for President Trump to salute a North Korean General, express admiration for the fact that when Kim speaks, North Korean people sit up, and declare that “I want my people to do the same,” is appalling. North Korean people have no choice, and if they are even suspected of anything other than absolute devotion to the ruling family, they end up in a gulag. Mr Trump said he was joking. But Mr President, gulags are no joke. And North Korea’s regime has incarcerated at least 100,000 people, perhaps twice that number, in prison camps that have been compared to Auschwitz.
Yet we in CSW are not opposed to the summit itself. Indeed, in principle we welcome engagement. We have long advocated engagement. In 2010, I travelled to North Korea with Britain’s tireless champion of human rights in North Korea, Lord Alton, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group for North Korea, to engage the regime. We published a report – Building Bridges, Not Walls – which advocated critical engagement. But human rights must be clearly on the table, as they were in the Helsinki Process with the Soviet Union – a model for engagement with North Korea. For as Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov said during his 1975 Nobel Peace Prize lecture, “international confidence, mutual understanding, disarmament, and international security are inconceivable without an open society with freedom of information, freedom of conscience, the right to publish, and the right to travel.”
It should not be forgotten that the Trump-Kim summit took place on 12 June, the 31st anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech. That speech linked the security of the world with the basic human rights and freedoms of an oppressed people. “Freedom and security go together: the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace, said President Reagan.” Just as Ronald Reagan called on Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” and “open this gate”, Mr Trump should deliver the same message to Mr Kim.
“Our task now is to insist that at every stage of engagement with North Korea from now on, human rights are part of the discussion.”
Our task now is to insist that at every stage of engagement with North Korea from now on, human rights are part of the discussion. In the meantime, we must increase efforts to increase the information flow into North Korea, to counter the regime’s propaganda and undermine its information blockade. As our new report, Movies, Markets and Mass Surveillance: Human Rights in North Korea after a Decade of Change shows, in the last ten years increased flows of information, through radio broadcasts and smuggling of DVDs and USBs with South Korean dramas on them, have enhanced awareness about the outside world, and about human rights. Together with economic changes, this has led to an opening of hearts and minds in North Korea – despite, not because, of the regime. In this new engagement, we must build on that.
As Justice Michael Kirby, who chaired the UN Commission of Inquiry, said in a recent article, “I am glad that President Trump and Chairman Kim met in Singapore … But I cannot put out of my mind the people who came to the public hearings of the United Nations inquiry. They told their stories of suffering. They trust the world and the United Nations to right the wrongs. Their testimony is on the Internet. It haunts our world. But not North Korea where it is inaccessible to all but the elite around Kim. I will begin to respect his word when he opens up his isolated country to allow United Nations inspectors to visit the mass detention camps. Let him do this immediately and then I can join in the rejoicing for the self-proclaimed triumph of the Singapore Summit of June 2018.”
Real peace is impossible, unless the human rights and dignity of the people of North Korea are respected, crimes against humanity end and accountability established. That must remain the goal for which we work and pray.
By Benedict Rogers, CSW’s East Asia Team Leader