The upcoming summit between North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump is intended to focus on denuclearization, formally ending the Korean War, improving inter-Korean relations, and establishing a lasting peace on the peninsula.
Amid all the optimism, however, it is time for a dash of reality.
Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has extracted a promise from Trump to bring up the subject of Pyongyang’s abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. Additionally, there are those who want to inject the topic of North Korea’s extensive human rights violations into the deliberations.
There is a danger that, with everyone pushing to get their favorite cause on the upcoming agenda for the summit, the talks will be overloaded – a case of biting off more than the participants can chew. The priority ought to be settling the denuclearization and its related issues before tackling secondary concerns.
Pyongyang is trying – albeit for its own purposes – to maintain the focus where it believes it rightfully belongs. While denuclearization and improving relations with the rest of the world bring obvious benefits to the North, there are no reciprocal payoffs for bringing up the embarrassing abduction issue or its shameful human rights record.
There is a danger that the talks will be overloaded – a case of biting off more than the participants can chew
In fact, the North is quite sensitive to the latter issue of its well-known gulags for political prisoners and their families, as attested in a recent report. A Korean-language article in the pro-Pyongyang Uriminzokkiri warned that the sincerity of the U.S. was doubtful and added that bringing up the subject of human rights could throw cold water on the upcoming summit.
The Korean-language Arirang-Meari, also pro-North, unabashedly stated that the U.S. ought to cease raising the problem of human rights in the North. Then, in a subsequent article in English, the Uriminzokkiri fired back at American claims about Pyongyang’s long-standing and continuous violations of basic human rights as being nothing more than the U.S. deflecting attention away from its own repulsive record, and sniffed that Washington ought to tend to its own maladies before attempting to criticize others.
WASHINGTON NOT BACKING DOWN
Even so, the U.S. Department of State avowed that it would indeed continue to push the issue of human rights in North Korea.
An article in the North Korean newspaper the Rodong Sinmun attempted to boomerang the charges leveled by Washington, stating instead that it is the U.S. that is the world’s worst abuser of human rights.
That Pyongyang is responding so vigorously to American charges regarding its human rights reveals the level of insecurity and sensitivity of North Korea to accusations about their human rights violations. Clearly, Pyongyang believes the old adage that the best defense is a good offense.
These self-serving and rather ham-handed narratives demonstrate the vulnerability of the North to adverse public opinion. It explains Kim Jong Un’s recent efforts to portray himself as a jovial avuncular leader, rather than a bloody tyrant who is willing to execute even family members to maintain his position at the top of the heap.
If those who believe that Pyongyang is only now coming to the table because sanctions are biting are correct in their assessment, then holding Kim’s feet to the fire over this issue could be a mechanism to ensure that the North does not walk away from the issue simply because it is inconvenient.
Indeed, the 2014 report from UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea and the ensuing discussions that included the possibility of referring Kim to The Hague on Crimes Against Humanity brought similar responses from the Kim regime.
Such a tactic might come at a cost, though. Pyongyang could consciously displace its own embarrassment by accusing Washington of trying to derail the peace process and adversely affecting the mood of the upcoming summit – a summit that perhaps was never really intended to take place.
Now that the meeting has been agreed upon, Kim could be looking for a way out that would cast Trump as the villain
Kim has been blustering for years to get Washington to the table, but the U.S. had always adamantly stipulated that denuclearization take place first. When Trump accepted Kim’s recent attempt to finesse the situation by offering talks about ending the Korean War and expressing a willingness to discuss denuclearization, Kim was likely taken by surprise. That is one reason it took the North so long to respond.
Now that the meeting has been agreed upon, Kim could be looking for a way out that would cast Trump as the villain. Portraying Washington as acting in bad faith or as attempting to disrupt the détente that has been only recently developed would be one way to do that.
Regardless, Pyongyang is laying the foundation for (1) lowering expectations as to what Pyongyang would be willing to discuss, or (2) abandoning the talks with the blame falling on Washington. History informs us that we should be prepared for either outcome.
As a former American negotiator who participated in the 1994 talks with Pyongyang recently explained, complete denuclearization of North Korea is quite unlikely.
Kim has no intention of giving up his nukes and missiles, but he would need a plausible justification for leaving the upcoming summit- the U.S. acting like a bully regarding human rights is just the exit ramp he needs.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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