President Donald Trump has crossed the human rights Rubicon on North Korea. His decision to do so has major implications both for the eventual democratic reunification of the Korean Peninsula and for the near-term prospect of military conflict over the nuclear crisis.
For decades, administrations of both parties have made only passing references to the humanitarian nightmare the North Korean people have endured under three generations of harsh Kim family rule. U.S. officials have averted their eyes and muted their voices so as not to arouse fears in Pyongyang and Beijing that Washington is contemplating regime change on the Korean Peninsula. Leaders in both countries suspect U.S. policy is masking its own version of Deng Xiaoping’s prescription for China—hiding sinister intentions while biding time.
The Chinese and North Korean dictators’ concerns are not entirely paranoid. When it comes to regime survival in a liberalizing world, tyrants may understand the consequences of the West’s impulses better than our own governments sometimes do. For all our pragmatism and occasional cynicism, American policies inevitably default in the direction of democracy and human rights.
However much we may disavow intentions to subvert or overthrow totalitarian or authoritarian systems, political freedom is in Americans’ DNA, at home and abroad. We have a persistent habit, irritating to the self-appointed masters of the people, of believing that wherever there are humans, there are human rights—that all men and women are so endowed. The Kim Jong Uns and Xi Jinpings of the world have seen the liberating effects of that dangerous idea, and they detest and fear it.
Initially, the Trump administration’s declared policy, like those of its predecessors, was to assure Beijing and Pyongyang that denuclearization would not threaten the Kim regime’s hold on power; indeed, it would assure it. Last Aug. 1, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson disclaimed any hostile purpose in U.S. North Korea policy when he stated America’s Six Nots: “We do not seek a regime change. We do not seek the collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. We do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel. We are not your enemy. We’re not your threat.”
Two weeks later, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis affirmed the U.S. commitment to leave in place the regime they accused of victimizing its people, offering Kim “peace, prosperity and international acceptance” in exchange for denuclearization. “The U.S. has no interest in regime change or accelerated reunification of Korea,” they wrote. “We do not seek an excuse to garrison U.S. troops north of the Demilitarized Zone. We have no desire to inflict harm on the long-suffering North Korean people, who are distinct from the hostile regime in Pyongyang.”
But as Trump grew more frustrated over China’s continued refusal to exert its unique leverage over Pyongyang, the president began weaving human rights concerns more explicitly into his warnings about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
In September, he called Kim “a madman who doesn’t mind starving or killing his people.” Weeks later, at the United Nations, he again decried North Korea’s nuclear weapons transgressions and linked it to his escalating rhetoric on human rights: “No one has shown more contempt for other nations and for the well-being of their own people than the depraved regime in North Korea. It is responsible for the starvation deaths of millions of North Koreans, and for the imprisonment, torture, killing, and oppression of countless more.”
In November, he hinted at the possibility of Pyongyang regime change from within, saying “It is hard to believe his people, and the military, put up with living in such horrible conditions.”
That same month, the president went full-bore on human rights in his widely acclaimed address to South Korea’s National Assembly, where he delivered a detailed and graphic catalogue of the North’s atrocities against its people. He quoted one person who escaped as saying, “I was not a human being. I was more like an animal. Only after leaving North Korea did I realize what life was supposed to be.”
Last week, Trump brought the dehumanization of the North Korean people home to America by putting on display surviving victims of the regime’s cruelty. In his State of the Union Address, he directed the nation’s and the world’s attention to the heroic young North Korean escapee with his mutilated body and defiantly raised crutches.
Two days later, he hosted a group of North Korean women and men who had suffered terribly under the Kims and during their desperate escape through China. He found their stories “incredible and very inspirational” and asked that they share them in the presence of the media “because the world would like to hear.”
One young woman told the president that many defectors carry poison to kill themselves if faced with capture by China and forced return to North Korea: “We would rather die than be repatriated. Escaping North Korea is not like leaving another country, it’s more like leaving another universe.”
During his visit to the PyeongChang Olympics, Vice President Pence carried the human rights issue directly back to the Korean people, both North and South. Sitting a few seats away from Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-Jong, Pence had at his side the father of Otto Warmbler, the American student captured, imprisoned, and brutally mistreated to the point of his eventual death by the North Koreans. He condemned the Kim regime for “enslaving its people” and its “appalling record of human rights violations.”
The president has personalized the North Korean human rights situation more dramatically than criticisms he has leveled at Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, though his description of the gassed Syrian babies before the cruise missile attack he ordered last April was also vivid.
His condemnation of Pyongyang’s atrocious humanitarian abuses has become more sustained and focused, suggesting a redirection of the administration’s North Korea policy. Now, in addition to denuclearization, the president’s objective seems to be the rehumanization of the Korean people, from within or through regime change.
Whether that can be accomplished, with the help of China, through internal reforms in Pyongyang, is highly doubtful unless the Trump administration imposes an unacceptable price on Beijing for its support of the Kim regime.
Alternatively, Washington can turn, in cooperation with its allies, to the overt and covert measures employed successfully in the Cold War that helped bring about internal regime change across the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Based on his increasing focus on the human rights catastrophe that is North Korea, President Trump may have decided that the best route to denuclearization, short of preventive military action, is through the rehumanization of the North Korean people.
The confluence of strategic and human rights concerns should help convince Beijing and Moscow that this administration is serious about changing the situation in North Korea one way or another, and help persuade the American public that the course is both necessary and just. It will not be the first time in recent history that moral concerns and realpolitik coincide rather than conflict. But it will be ironic that this president should be the one to remind us of that truth.