Not since President Franklin Roosevelt sat down with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin after World War II has a meeting posed such a danger for American values as the this week’s coming summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
The outcome of the Roosevelt-Stalin meetings (which also included British Prime Minister Winston Churchill) was the loss of half of Europe to the communists for a half-century. The stakes are not so high in the upcoming summit between Trump and Kim, but the parallels are a sober reminder of how easily we can lose our way when dealing with ruthless totalitarians.
North Korea has suffered under three generations of Kim rulers, and the youngest member of the dynasty has shown himself to be as cruel as any before him. He came to power after his father, Kim Jong Il, died, and he executed his own uncle shortly afterward, using artillery shells to kill him in an open field. He ordered two women to assassinate his half brother, and they did so by administering a nerve agent at an airport in Malaysia.
But most importantly, Kim Jong Un has continued to imprison North Koreans by the hundreds of thousands in concentration camps, where they are starved, tortured and worked to death. The system, known as the kwan-li-so, includes camps hidden in the mountains and camps near cities, and entire families suffer for the purported sins of individuals.
Following the dictum of his grandfather and founder of the communist state, Kim Il Sung, that the “seed” of “factionalists” and “enemies of class” must be “eliminated through three generations,” Kim Jong Un even puts infants and grandparents in the camps. And though Kim looks as if he’s never missed double servings at meals, many of his citizens suffer from severe malnutrition. Food shortages born of disastrous central planning and corruption continue even after a famine wiped out hundreds of thousands of North Koreans in the mid-1990s.
Trump, whose ignorance of history is stunning, may not know much about the Kim dynasty and how it’s one of the most brutal regimes of the past 100 years. But he knows that the North Koreans imprisoned an American student in 2016, Otto Warmbier, and then shipped him home in a comatose state last year.
The president spoke about Warmbier’s treatment and other human rights violations in his State of the Union in January, but he’s been noticeably quiet about the Kim regime’s atrocities lately, even describing Kim as an “honorable man.” As long as Trump can notch a “win” — which can mean almost anything Trump chooses it to mean — he will gladly ignore the plight of North Korea’s 25 million people.
And let’s be clear. What goes on in the kwan-li-so is not your typical repression.
I’ve spent years researching and writing about the North Korean gulag, mostly in fiction that I’ve published in Commentary magazine and elsewhere. The characters I’ve created are born not solely out of imagination but out of the stories of those few who have escaped. Women who’ve had babies ripped from their wombs and left to die in open pits. Prisoners who have been reduced to eating rats, when they are lucky enough to catch them. Men placed in metal boxes so cramped that their legs become useless after a few weeks. Parents who betray their children. Neighbors who spy on one another.
No place on earth is as repressive as North Korea. Yet President Trump has said he has no interest in regime change and will no doubt guarantee Kim’s survival — and indeed will make him richer than he already is.
Kim knows exactly what he wants coming out of this summit: the lifting of sanctions. But he won’t give up his nuclear weapons. Kim knows that if he were to lose that leverage and open up his society, he couldn’t last in power. North Koreans have lived in a cocoon for more than 60 years, with almost no idea about the world beyond their borders. Trump’s elevating Kim by agreeing to a face-to-face meeting without any idea of what will come out of it is a sure loser, for the United States and the Korean people.
Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.
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