North Korean talks aren’t just about nukes
Trump could plant seeds of freedom in Kim Jong Un’s mind when they meet, Matt Liles says
Just over 25 years ago, Kang Chol Hwan crossed the Yalu River under the light of the moon. A few weeks earlier, he had smuggled himself and a friend to North Korea’s border with China, using risky bribes and loose connections to weave through a web of dangers that could have collapsed on them at any moment.
Even on the other side of the river, the danger persisted as they were hunted by squads of soldiers. All of this Kang endured at great peril, not just to his own life, but to the lives of his family.
What compels a man to risk everything so desperately? For Kang, it was a need to taste the freedom that had been stripped from him and crushed by the state of North Korea.
In his memoir, The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, Kang describes a system in which “there was no difference between man and beast.” He and his family, like many others, were the victims of a random purge by the central government. They would spend a decade in the Yodok prison camp being beaten, starved and forced into backbreaking work. Even with release from the camps, they wouldn’t have found freedom.
Constant surveillance and work assignments awaited, and the slightest mistake, such as speaking about conditions in the camp, would send them straight back to slavery.
Kim Jong Un has continued these cruelties since coming to power. A report by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea has analyzed how innocent North Koreans are labeled as criminals and how even those who are loyal to the regime are often suspected of treason. Basic human freedoms of expression, religious practice and property ownership are no more available than they were two generations ago. What started as an ideological commitment to communism is now more of commitment to keeping Kim in power.
This is the context in which President Donald Trump will be meeting with Kim in the coming weeks. Making progress on denuclearization would be an important step in protecting Korean and American lives. However, this summit is an opportunity for more than that.
The president should articulate the need for liberal democracy in North Korea and push for reforms. No American president has ever met with the leader of North Korea, and very few Americans ever get the chance. Sowing seeds of freedom in Kim’s mind could benefit those trapped in servitude.
When President Ronald Reagan met with President Mikhail Gorbachev to discuss disarmament, Reagan spoke about the need for liberty to spur human progress. Those talks not only contributed to the end of the Cold War; they influenced reforms within the Soviet Union. Later, when Reagan reflected about his meetings with the Soviet leader, he spoke optimistically about the world turning to free markets and democracy.
Reagan’s example shows that the rhetoric Trump uses in negotiations with Kim can have an effect.
Dealing with the Kim regime doesn’t just mean dealing with government officials and policymakers. It means affecting the lives of 25 million subjected people. The actions and reactions of the leadership in Pyongyang have serious repercussions for North Korea’s humblest citizens.
A single mistake in the negotiations could see more North Koreans condemned to the camps or subjected to the regime’s pervasive surveillance. Even a minor misstep likely means North Korea will throw more money into nuclear weapons development rather than spending it to benefit the people.
The Trump administration, despite its shortcomings at home, has the chance to advance freedom in one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships. Someday, when the regime in North Korea falls and the world gets a clear look inside, we will see remnants of atrocity on par with those of Hitler and Stalin. We must act before more abuse can occur. Trump’s talks with Kim should focus on how the regime can scale back human-rights abuses and open economic opportunities for the North Korean people.