The Corner


Trump, Kim, and the Boys in the Camps

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and U.S. president Donald Trump at their summit in Singapore, June 12, 2018 (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

President Trump did an excellent thing at the State of the Union address last January. He honored Ji Seong-ho, an almost superhuman defector from North Korea. Ji escaped the country on crutches. I saw him at the Oslo Freedom Forum a couple of weeks ago. As I wrote, “he projects an air of ebullience. I can’t help thinking he is happy to be alive.”

Trump has said some shocking things in recent hours. For example, he said the following about Kim Jong-un: “He is very talented. Anybody who takes over a situation like he did at 26 years of age and is able to run it, and run it tough. I don’t say he was nice or say anything about it. He ran it, few people at that age — you could take one out of 10,000, could not do it.”

It is unclear how old Kim is. Probably, he was 28 when he inherited the dictatorship. But that is a triviality.

He has certainly “run it tough,” if that’s the way you want to characterize Kim’s rule over North Korea. His father chose him for his dictatorial mettle. This apple did not fall very far from the tree. Kim Jong-il passed over his two older sons to anoint the youngest, Jong-un. (If you would like to read more about this, consult my 2015 book, Children of Monsters.)

Two years ago, I interviewed another North Korean defector, Jung Gwang-il. (All North Korean escapees are considered defectors, because all North Koreans are supposed to belong to the state, body and soul.) Jung was in the gulag, like so many of his countrymen. Let me give a paragraph from the piece I wrote about him. It is a horrible paragraph, and you may wish to skip it, but here it is, in the interest of truth:

In the winter, the prisoners were made to get wood from the mountain. Many were injured or killed, as the trees fell or the logs rolled down the mountain. Other prisoners would not pause to bury the dead. It would have taken too much energy in the frozen ground. They carried the bodies back to a shed next to a latrine. At night, when you went to the latrine, you could hear moaning from the shed — some weren’t dead yet. By the spring, they were all dead, of course. The bodies had formed a great gelatinous mass. And Jung and the others would have to break it apart, with shovels, and bury it.

Again talking about Kim Jong-un, Trump said, “I learned he’s a very talented man. I also learned he loves his country very much.” I beg to differ. I also beg to differ with Trump about Xi Jinping, the boss of the Chinese Communist Party, and therefore the boss of all of China. Xi has more power than any other Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. The camps are full. Xi is presiding over the most oppressive period in China since the Cultural Revolution.

Last year, Trump praised him effusively. He did it on the very day that China’s most prominent political prisoner, Liu Xiaobo, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, died, finally succumbing to his torments. Trump said of Xi, “He’s a friend of mine. I have great respect for him. We’ve gotten to know each other very well. A great leader. He’s a very talented man. I think he’s a very good man. He loves China, I can tell you. He loves China. He wants to do what’s right for China.”

Trump additionally said, “President Xi is a terrific guy. I like being with him a lot, and he’s a very special person.”

Back to Kim Jong-un and North Korea. Trump said, “His country does love him. His people, you see the fervor. They have a great fervor.” Oh, yes, the fervor. Trump may want to visit the camps, or talk with Ji Seong-ho, to see how fervent is this love.

Jimmy Carter was under the same illusions. He traveled to Pyongyang in 1994 to meet with Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the current dictator. Carter said that he had been able to “observe the North Koreans’ psyche and their societal structure and the reverence with which they look upon their leader.”

Carter also found Pyongyang a “bustling city,” where shoppers “pack the department stores.” He said he was reminded of the Walmart in Americus, Georgia! Though a highly experienced and worldly man — a former president of the United States, after all — he had fallen for a Potemkinized North Korea.

You may recall Joseph Davies, our onetime ambassador to Moscow — who said, “He gives the impression of a strong mind which is composed and wise. His brown eye is exceedingly kindly and gentle. A child would like to sit in his lap, and a dog would sidle up to him.” Davies was talking about Stalin.

Trump said of Kim Jong-un, “Really, he’s got a great personality. He’s a funny guy, he’s very smart . . .” Stalin had a better personality, when he was in the mood. And he was funnier and smarter.

From what I can tell, people who know about North Korea are aghast at the comments that Trump has made. Others say, “Lighten up. He’s just being diplomatic. Why don’t you give peace a chance?”

There are all sorts of things you have to do in foreign policy, to get along in the world. To lessen tensions and prevent war. You have to hold your nose and deal with beasts. But you don’t have to tell outrageous and insulting lies, and you don’t have to break faith with American values, and human values. If you’re president, the whole world hears you — and that can include the boys in the camps.

Reagan was known throughout the Soviet Gulag. (So was his first U.N. ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick.) Why? Because the zeks, the prisoners, knew he was on their side. He told them so.

Bukovsky, the great Soviet dissident, said something like this: “Free World governments should do what they have to do — but as they go about their business, they should occasionally pause to ask, ‘How will it look to the boys in the camps?’”

A lot of Americans care very much about the NFL and the national anthem. But standing up for American values means other things too, such as not perfuming one of the most disgusting and murderous tyrannies ever known to man.

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