Early today President Donald Trump became the first sitting US president to cross into North Korea after meeting Northi Korean dictator Kim Jong-un at the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Critics have dismissed it as pure political theatre, but others say it could set the scene for future talks. Speaking to reporters alongside Mr. Kim at the DMZ, President Trump said: “Stepping across that line is a great honor, great progress has been made, great friendships have been made and this has been, in particular, a great friendship.” Nonetheless, Trump downplayed the significance of the meeting, saying it would be “just a step” in trying to repair the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea and move toward a U.S. goal of nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula.
Isolated from the rest of the world, North Korea has been ruled by the Kim family for three generations, and its citizens are required to show complete devotion to the family and its current leader, Kim Jong-un. North Korea remains one of the world’s most represive states. In his seventh year in power, Kim Jong-un—who serves as chairman of the States Affairs Commission and head of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea—continues to exercise almost total political control. The government restricts all civil and political liberties, including freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion. It also prohibits all organized political opposition, independent media, civil society, and trade unions.
The government routinely uses arbitrary arrest and punishment of crimes, torture in custody, and executions to maintain fear and control over the population. The government and security agencies systematically extract forced, unpaid labor from its citizens— including women, children, detainees, and prisoners—to build infrastructure, implement projects, and carry out activities and events extolling the ruling Kim family and the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).
The government continued its tight restrictions on unauthorized cross-border travel to China, collaborated with Chinese authorities to capture and return North Korean refugees, and punished North Koreans making contact with the outside world. The government fails to protect or promote the rights of numerous at-risk groups, including women, children, and people with disabilities.
North Korea has been said to be the world’s biggest open prison camps. According to a report by the US State Department, there are between 80,000 and 120,000 people in prison in the North.
Let us hope that the US-led West under Trump will not just tackle the nuclear problem but the human rights violations, too. In the end, if the latter is altogether excluded, then we are simply an accomplice to such violations under realpolitik. If, however, they are confronted, then there will be a true opportunity for peace in the Korean Peninsula.