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

The Dallas Morning News - - Viewpoints - Matt Liles is a stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin, an in­tern in the Texas State Se­nate and a Dal­las Morn­ing News Com­mu­nity Voices alum­nus. Email:

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.

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