Just over a year ago, President Trump stood before Congress and told the story of Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector who suffered at the hands of that brutal Communist regime. This week, the president stood next to North Korea’s ruler and refused to address Kim Jong-un’s abysmal record on human rights.
His silence in Hanoi was a strategic error at a time when authoritarianism is on the rise in East Asia. It encourages nations that believe they can terrorize their citizens — and perhaps their neighbors — without fear of American condemnation. Both the future of liberty and American leadership in Asia depend on President Trump once more drawing attention to the true nature of North Korea.
Initially, President Trump spoke accurately and eloquently about North Korea’s utter disregard for human rights, avoiding the topic only once the summits began. Those early statements focused the world’s attention on Pyongyang’s inhumanity, putting renewed pressure on Kim to come to the table. The criticisms still hold true, because North Korea is more concentration camp than country.
The facts should be repeated as often as possible. The Kim regime operates a gulag system that would make its old Soviet founders proud. Recent estimates put the number of prisoners at up to 120,000 in the four largest camps alone. Few ever escape, but those who do remember widespread torture, public executions, and mothers forced to drown their newborn infants.
Outside the gulags, life is usually less violent, but no more free. Like all Communist regimes, North Korea’s bill of rights is a worthless document ignored by the state. In daily life, there is no freedom of speech or assembly, no right to privacy or protest, and no respect for conscience or religion — especially Christianity, for which the Kim regime holds special hatred. Only those citizens whose families show absolute loyalty are allowed to live in major cities, although a single misstep can cast them back into the countryside to a life of poverty, malnutrition, and even death.
North Korea’s oppression at home is tied to its aggression abroad. Nations that tyrannize their own citizens rarely have qualms about attacking their neighbors, which is precisely why human rights must be part of the denuclearization discussion. You cannot divide foreign and domestic policy in Communist thought. They are two halves of the same tumor; you can cut one half away, but it will grow back given time. And that is why the silence on the nature of the evil is so concerning.
By drawing attention to North Korea’s oppression, the President would have put Kim Jong-un on his back foot. The focus would have expanded beyond the regime’s nuclear program — its greatest strength — to include its tyranny, which is North Korea’s greatest weakness.
Indeed, the president would have made Pyongyang’s Communist ideology a central question, just as Ronald Reagan did with the Soviet Union in his day. There is no debate that Kim wants less; there is no debate the people of North Korea need more.
But the need also extends far beyond the Korean Peninsula. With the rise of China and its aggressive, authoritarian version of Communism, all of Asia needs reassurance that the United States stands for freedom, democracy, and human rights.
The Trump administration has a more consistent record of criticizing China’s Communist Party, but Beijing and our other adversaries — as well as our allies — are watching for any sign of wavering. Pro-freedom advocates across Asia have already told my organization that U.S. silence on human rights in North Korea is disheartening and even dangerous.
The Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky once said that when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” it electrified him and his fellow inmates in the Siberian gulag. “That was the moment,” he remembers, “that really marked the end” for the Soviet Union “and the beginning for us.” Building on this sentiment, Sharansky told my organization on the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution that freedom and human rights are “asymmetrical weapons” for which Communists, and all authoritarians, have no defense.
The Trump administration has fielded those weapons before. It was a show of strength that delivered results. For the sake of our national interests, and the spread of our most cherished ideals, it’s time to deploy that arsenal again.
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