WASHINGTON – Barreling toward a historic summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, President Donald Trump has his sights set on a nuclear deal, leaving allies and advocates worried that he may give short shrift to human rights abuses and regional security concerns.
With a week to go before the June 12 meeting in Singapore, Trump has largely kept his focus on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, recently stressing that it may take more than one meeting to achieve that goal. That singular focus could mean Trump looks past a range of troublesome actions by the regime as he promises Kim “protection” in exchange for giving up a nuclear program that could pose a direct threat to the U.S. mainland.
Critics have started invoking the Iran nuclear deal that Trump recently exited as a cautionary tale. Republicans and some Democrats objected to the 2015 agreement for not doing more to halt that country’s ballistic missile program and support for Hezbollah and other extremist groups.
“We want to make sure the president’s desire for a deal with North Korea doesn’t saddle the United States, Japan and South Korea with a bad deal,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters Monday.
White House officials say the plight of the North Korean people, who live under one of the world’s most repressive governments, is not a priority for the summit.
In a meeting that lasted more than an hour Friday with one of Kim’s top deputies, Kim Yong Chol, Trump said he did not raise the issue of human rights. Trump did say he “probably” would bring up human rights when he meets with the North Korean leader – “and maybe in great detail.”
As for other concerns, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders last week wouldn’t say whether Trump would bring up the North’s extensive chemical and biological weapons programs since the priority is the nuclear question. Kim Jong Un’s half brother was fatally poisoned with VX nerve agent in a Malaysian airport last year in an attack the U.S. attributes to the North.
Meanwhile, U.S. allies in the region are privately pressing the administration to maintain pressure on the North over its regional missile program out of concern that Trump could boost the security of the U.S. at the expense of its partners. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is meeting Trump at the White House on Thursday to advocate for his country’s interests at the talks.
Senate Democrats on Monday released a letter to the Trump administration outlining the parameters of what they believe constitutes a satisfactory agreement – including a call for a permanent end to the North’s nuclear, chemical and biological programs, a suspension of ballistic tests, and anytime-anywhere inspections.
The delicate balancing of U.S. needs and alliances with the promotion of human rights abroad has long bedeviled American leaders. And Trump is not the first U.S. leader to concentrate on a nuclear issue at the expense of other matters.
But Trump has eschewed the path of his predecessors, who explicitly declared the promotion of human rights to be in the national interest, even if they were forced to make Faustian bargains with unsavory actors.
The president’s national security strategy, released in December, said little on the subject. And it was left to his vice president, Mike Pence, to elevate the issue during a February trip to the region.
Addressing the subject with the North is particularly difficult given that Kim’s government is believed to view the raising of human rights as tantamount to advocating regime change. So bringing it up could make it harder to make progress on eliminating North Korea’s weapons program.
While Trump has made gestures toward human rights issues in North Korea, those efforts have largely been designed to increase pressure on the country’s government. That was the case when Trump recognized a North Korean defector during his State of the Union address in January and hosted a group of North Korean escapees in the Oval Office.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said that while the summit presents the opportunity for a denuclearized peninsula, “I urge the Trump administration to also prioritize human rights and hold accountable the North Korean dictatorship for being one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.”
Kim is on a Treasury Department blacklist for human rights abuses and is likely to seek removal from the list as a concession.
The U.S. imposed those sanctions two years ago as part of the Obama administration’s effort to isolate North Korea, but it came as the Kim government rapidly developed its nuclear program. It was the first time that Kim had been personally sanctioned and the first time that any North Korean officials had been blacklisted in connection with rights abuses. Announcing the sanctions, the U.S. accused North Korea of cruelty and hardship, “including extrajudicial killings, forced labor and torture.”
White House officials have pushed back publicly against the notion that Trump has deprioritized international human rights. They point to Trump’s rollback of his predecessor’s opening with Cuba and his comments about the devastation wrought by the Islamic State group and Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
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