With President Xi Jinping of China visiting the U.S. this week, many wish they could be the proverbial fly on the wall at the Mar-a-Lago estate as these two world leaders hash out an array of important issues. President Trump has made it clear that he is unhappy with the status quo of the U.S.–China relationship. For his part, Xi Jinping initially responded to Trump’s aggressive comments by implying that China may “take off its gloves” if Trump continues to antagonize it. Lately, though, Xi Jinping has pivoted to more-conciliatory comments about the value of “free trade.”
The trade issue and its link to the hollowing-out of the U.S. manufacturing sector (and jobs) is certainly important. However, there is a danger that it will crowd out a host of other issues, including one that I think trumps (sorry) all others: China’s complicity in the torture and murder of tens of thousands of human beings.
Yet Beijing has an almost unique ability to influence the ultra-repressive “hermit kingdom” to its east. For decades, China has provided North Korea with most of its food and energy supplies, and China accounts for more than 70 percent of its total trade volume.
Additionally, Beijing is the provider of most of the direct aid to the DPRK and serves as virtually its sole advocate in foreign-policy disputes. In recent years, even China seems to be growing weary of Kim Jong-un’s antics, but the chances of its seriously addressing human rights in North Korea seem slim. North Korea is a military (and ideological) buffer state that has obvious value for China. On the economic front, if North Korea falls, millions of refugees are likely to flood across the Chinese border. The bill for the humanitarian crisis that would unfold is not one that China is interested in paying, so it continues to kick the can down the road and opt for the devil it knows.
At my organization, International Christian Concern, we feel a deep and acute sense of urgency about this issue. Christians are routinely singled out for exceptionally poor treatment by the Kim regime. The simple act of owning a Bible can send you and three generations of your family to one of the prison camps where tens of thousands of Christians have died or been executed over the past 70 years.
China could drastically change a major human-rights abuse overnight and save thousands of lives by ending its repatriation policy. Chinese officials are well aware that once defectors are returned to North Korea, they are at the whim of the North Korean government. Torture, imprisonment, and even execution of those who are repatriated are common. The repatriation policy makes China complicit in the persecution and death of thousands of North Koreans each year.
China is seeking recognition as a global power. That presents a prime opportunity to point out its complicity in human-rights abuses and may make it especially receptive to criticism on the human-rights front.
The United States, while not perfect, has for decades been the champion of the repressed and oppressed. Moreover, those who suffer under despotic regimes have often looked to us to champion their cause and denounce their dictators.
I am reminded of the Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky and his remarks on President Reagan’s denunciation of the USSR as an “evil empire”:
It was the great brilliant moment when we learned that Ronald Reagan had proclaimed the Soviet Union an Evil Empire before the entire world. Finally, a spade had been called a spade. Finally, Orwell’s Newspeak was dead. President Reagan had from that moment made it impossible for anyone in the West to continue closing their eyes to the real nature of the Soviet Union.
For us, that was the moment that really marked the end for them and the beginning for us. The lie had been exposed and could never, ever be untold now.
Each generation witnesses its own atrocities and unchallenged evils. This week, President Trump has a unique opportunity to call out the North Korean regime for what it is and to challenge China to end its policy of repatriating North Korean defectors.
Such a move on the president’s part would find support on both sides of the aisle, demonstrate moral leadership to critics and supporters alike, save thousands from the camps and firing squads of the Kim regime, and be a bold first step in building a legacy as a champion of human rights and freedom. Maybe, if done well, it could even be another “great, brilliant moment” and the beginning of the end for one of the most reprehensible evils of our time.
— Jeff King has served as the president of International Christian Concern (ICC) since 2002 and has traveled extensively to meet with victims of religious persecution around the world and to provide assistance.