(WASHINGTON) — President Donald Trump said it himself to Congress and the American people: “No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea.”
But when it comes to human rights, don’t expect Trump to hold Kim Jong Un’s feet to the fire at the Singapore summit. The focus is on nuclear weapons, and the young autocrat’s international standing is likely to be boosted regardless of the outcome.
In the run-up to Tuesday’s historic face-to-face with Kim, Trump has appeared unconcerned about the implications of feting an authoritarian leader suspected of ordering the public assassination of his half-brother with nerve agent, executing his uncle by firing squad, and presiding over a notorious gulag estimated to hold between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners.
While Trump highlighted Pyongyang’s problematic human rights record in January during his State of the Union address — where he also said the “depraved character of the North Korean regime” demonstrated the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose — the president has skirted those concerns since agreeing in March to Kim’s suggestion of a summit.
When Trump met former North Korean military intelligence chief Kim Yong Chol at the White House two weeks ago, the president said they didn’t discuss human rights, underscoring that it was not a primary concern. At a pre-summit briefing by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday, the issue didn’t get a mention.
Robert King, who served as U.S. envoy on North Korean human-rights issues under the Obama administration, said Trump has used human rights as an instrument to get Kim Jong Un to negotiate on nuclear weapons, but not as a policy priority in its own right.
“The other problem is that he’s anxious to see some progress at the summit, and human rights is not an easy issue to raise with Kim Jong Un,” King said.
U.S. presidents have always faced a predicament in balancing national security and geopolitical priorities with democratic values. But Trump has notably avoided calling out authoritarian leaders on human rights when he wants closer ties with them, whether it’s adversaries like China and Russia or allies like Saudi Arabia and the Philippines.