The most lasting image from Donald Trump’s historic meeting with Kim Jong Un on June 12 came shortly after the first hand shake; the US president gave a thumbs-up to the young dictator, who smiled back
The summit could be the beginning of true North Korean denuclearization, and the opening up of the repressive regime to the outside world, if the vague agreement signed by Trump and Kim bucks the historical trend. But Trump’s failure to highlight North Korea’s “systemic, widespread, and gross” human rights violations, from torture to starvation to forced abortions worried US politicians, and democratic activists around the globe.
At a time when authoritarianism is on the rise worldwide, some say it’s dangerous for the US president to brush human rights under the rug. “It matters because the entire human rights infrastructure set up after WWII is weakening worldwide,” said John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “The notion that democracy, while flawed, is the best form of government that exists, is under assault,” he said.
If the US stops pushing its democratic message of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” around the globe, critics warn, other political models could gain influence, like Beijing’s powerful Communist Party, with its long history of authoritarian abuses and crippling censorship.
Trump was a vocal critic of Kim’s human rights abuses as recently as this January, when he said “no regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally” than Kim’s “cruel dictatorship,” in his State of the Union address.
Since then, there has been no sign that the Kim regime changed. Nevertheless, Trump said this week that he is now on good terms with the “very talented” chairman Kim, whom he called “very smart” and who “wants to do the right thing.”
Kim is “going to start a process that’s going to make a lot of people very happy and very safe,” Trump said in a press conference afterward, without providing any details. Human rights were discussed “relatively briefly compared to denuclearization,” Trump said in a press conference. He then elaborated that they were discussed “at pretty good length,” and seconds later that they were “discussed at length outside of the nuclear situation.”
Nothing specific seems to have been agreed, though. Trump said he “thinks” things will change in terms of human rights, and that he thinks Kim “wants to do things.”
Pushed further, Trump noted that North Korea is not the only country with human rights abuses.
Things are indeed rough around the world, but that doesn’t seem to have prevented Trump from meeting or praising abusive countries’ representatives. He previously skipped discussing human rights during a meeting with North Korean nuclear negotiator Kim Yong Chol on June 1. The US president also didn’t mention human rights in his visit to Saudi Arabia, nor during his meeting with China’s Xi Jinping, (though Trump did respond briefly to disputed Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s attacks on civilians.)
“Trump does not have an appreciation for human rights,” said Mark Simon, the commercial director for Next Media, a Hong Kong media company that pushes back against Beijing’s censorship, and a former chairman of Republicans Abroad.
Simon compared Trump to Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon’s secretary of state, whose support of abusive foreign governments prompted the New Yorker to ask if he “has a conscience” in 2016. Trump sees “no upside for us in the [human rights] issue,” he said. “It’s also not our business, in his view.”
Trump’s summit with Kim is being compared favorably by right-wing pundits with Ronald Reagan’s landmark meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Iceland in 1986 and 1987. But Reagan broadcast the Western world’s human rights criticisms of the repressive Soviet state before, during, and after the meeting. “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” Reagan said, pushing Gorbachev to do more in Moscow in 1988.
The meeting is also being compared to Barack Obama’s meeting with Cuba’s Raul Castro in 2016. There, too, the US president specifically highlighted Castro’s human rights record in their joint press conference, and wrung concessions from Castro that included holding a human rights summit in Cuba, and opening up the internet. He was also roundly criticized for not doing more by the Republican party.
Trump’s Kim summit is a new low, some Republicans say. “For the record of history, never before has a US President spoken this way of a dictator accused of crimes against his own people,” said David Jolly, a Republican former Congressman from Florida. The George W. Bush library spent the day after the summit broadcasting information about North Korea’s human rights abuses.
Trump isn’t alone in his forgiving attitude.
Fewer countries seem to be waving the banner of human rights very vigorously these days. The United States was itself recently accused of violating immigrants’ human rights by the United Nations. The European Union has signed agreements with Turkey and Libya to hold migrants and refugees captive at the border. In Myanmar, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to acknowledge the genocide of Rohingya Muslims.
Speaking at the Aurora Prize award in Yerevan, Armenia, on June 9, Samantha Power, the Obama administration’s ambassador to the UN, recalled that the US once welcomed Armenian refugees with open arms. Today’s global political climate, she said, “has never been less welcoming to refugees.”
This is a case of the political class reflecting citizen’s attitudes, not betraying them. According to the Aurora Humanitarian Index, a survey of 11,000 people in 12 countries including US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan, 61% say they feel a “crisis overload,” and cannot keep up with news of all the humanitarian crises in the world. Only 36% of respondents said they think the protection of children should be a humanitarian priority; even fewer (24%) thought the protection of women should.
The US has always turned a blind eye to some human rights abusers, when strategically convenient. But for decades, its overall foreign policy emphasized protecting human rights as the foundation of global democracy.
For Trump, promoting democracy appears to be less of a priority, says Sifton of Human Rights Watch. The Trump-Kim’s summit recalls a 1914-esque world order, he said, referring to the period leading up to WWI, “where heads of state do business with one another, man to man.”
“I don’t mean to be dramatic,” he said. “But that’s where things are heading.”