Is President Donald Trump dusting off his most potent weapon in what was his “maximum pressure” campaign to denuclearize North Korea, Pyongyang’s criminal human rights record?
In speeches before the United Nations, the South Korean National Assembly and in his 2017 State of the Union (SOTU) address, Trump had used the harshest language to expose the Kim regime’s atrocities against its long-suffering population. He told the General Assembly that “the depraved regime in North Korea is responsible for the starvation deaths of millions of North Koreans, and for the imprisonment, torture, killing, and oppression of countless more.”
Finally, the president showed that the Kim regime’s cruelty extends beyond its own people to its treatment of a U.S. citizen. He marshaled his administration’s diplomatic resources and his own personal energies to secure the release of Otto Warmbier, the American student held by Pyongyang for 17 months for trying to filch a propaganda poster as a North Korean souvenir.
Tragically, Warmbier was released in June 2017 only after he had been repeatedly beaten and tortured until falling into a coma; he died shortly after being sent home. Trump cited “the regime’s deadly abuse of an innocent American college student” in his U.N. speech.
Yet, last February, the president dramatically shifted his position on Kim Jong Un’s responsibility for Warmbier’s mistreatment and death. Asked about the case after his failed Hanoi summit with Kim, Trump stated that the North Korean leader felt “badly” about what had happened to Otto Warmbier and then went on to absolve Kim of responsibility. The Warmbier family was not so accepting of that explanation and expressed shock at the president’s statement: “Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuses or lavish praise can change that.”
Nothing more had been heard about the case from the White House in the ensuing six months — until now. The White House announced last week that the president would host the Warmbier family for a Saturday evening dinner to honor Otto’s memory. In case the media failed to take proper notice, Trump used his joint press conference with Australia’s prime minister days later to recall how “horribly” Otto had been treated.
Trump’s decision to highlight it in a high-visibility public setting … could well have been him telling Kim Jong Un that America has not forgotten or forgiven the outrageous treatment and murder of one of its young sons — or the nature of the regime that carried out such a heinous act. Trump may well be hinting at a potential return to the broader focus on North Korea’s despicable treatment of its own people, not least including the millions held in concentration camps.
The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), which helped arrange the 2017 White House meeting with North Korean defectors, this past week released its latest in a series of authoritative reports laying out the inner workings of the Kim regime’s system of oppression. HRNK’s work, and that of the United Nations human rights committee, have effectively made the case for regime change in North Korea in one form or another.
[Excerpts from The Hill by Joseph Bosco who served as China country director for the secretary of Defense, 2005-2006, and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, 2009-2010.]