In the wake of the 2018 Winter Games, Andrew Elliott Cha reflects on North Korea's charm offensive and what the Trump administration must do to form a credible response.
At the recently concluded Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Vice-President Mike Pence clarified his mission in attending the opening ceremonies on February 9: “We will not allow North Korea to hide behind the Olympic banner the reality that they enslave their people.” To accentuate the point, Pence brought as his special guest to Korea the father of Otto Warmbier, the deceased American college student who suffered brain trauma while detained in North Korea. In the week prior to the Olympics, President Trump echoed these sentiments, when he stood with a group of eight North Korean defectors in the Oval Office, stating that “No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea.”
One shouldn't view these events as reflective of the Trump administration’s concern for human rights abuses in North Korea, in addition to its oft-stated opposition to its nuclear weapons program. While it may be true that Washington is attempting to control the human rights narrative at the Olympics, this is for tactical reasons only. If Trump were genuinely interested in improving the human condition in the North, there are far more significant efforts he could undertake than to send his stern-faced vice-president or his telegenic daughter to Olympic festivities armed with talking points about the regime’s brutality.
Battle for the Narrative
President Trump’s hosting of North Korean defectors, and his Vice-President’s steady drumbeat of human rights condemnations sounded like gold-medal winning celebrations of human dignity, but unfortunately they do not reflect a newfound respect for improving the human rights situation in North Korea. Rather, they amount to a coordinate plan to block North Korea's charm offensive at the Games.
Under the burden of nine UN Security Council resolutions and global economic sanctions over its rogue nuclear and missile programs, North Korea sought to use the Olympics as a way to relieve some of the pressure. In pursuit of this objective, the North dispatched Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of mercurial North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, to the Olympics to what could only be described as a rock star’s welcome. The media dubbed the thirty-something year old a “young princess,” who appeared to disarm an entire nation with her “Mona Lisa” smile. After watching the Olympics opening ceremony, she signed in the guest book at the South Korean president’s residence: “I hope Pyongyang and Seoul will become closer in the hearts of Koreans and will bring unification and prosperity in the near future.”
The U.S. is right to unravel this narrative. Despite her calls for reconciliation of the two Korean peoples, Kim Yo-jong represents neither a new emissary of peace, nor the hearts of the North Korean people. She is an accomplice to the most brutal family dictatorship in modern history, one that has filled its own pockets with money and luxury goods while allowing over two million people to starve in the mid-1990s.
Getting Real on Human Rights
Though Trump deserves credit for counteracting North Korea's public relations blitz, it doesn't translate to a genuine commitment to human rights. Indeed, until word got out that the North Koreans would be joining the Olympic party, President Trump had made no prior references to the regime’s human rights abuses during his first year in office. Moreover, the announcement of a new round of tough economic sanctions against Pyongyang last week, did not include Treasury Department designations against human rights abusers; nor does human rights appear to be a part of the “maximum pressure” economic sanctions campaign against the regime’s nuclear weapons. Trump's policies on immigration would actually block refugees like the ones he met in the Oval Office from seeking freedom in the United States.
The tactical nature of the human rights policy was evident in Trump’s first State of the Union speech in January, when he featured Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector who lost two of his limbs as a teenager while searching for food. The president described how Mr. Ji managed to escape North Korea on a pair of wooden crutches, which Ji held triumphantly over his head to a standing ovation in the Capitol chamber. The President framed what some would see as a memorable tribute to the cause of human rights in North Korea with these words, “[his] story is a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.”
The reality is that Donald Trump never paid attention to, or cared about Mr. Ji’s act of courage until last month. In order for the U.S. to get serious on human rights and to follow through on its Olympic initiatives, the administration needs to take four actions:
First, it needs to appoint a special envoy for North Korean human rights abuses. This position, previously held by Robert King under President Obama and Jay Lefkowitz under President Bush, has remained vacant under Trump. In addition, the position has been subsumed in the State Department under a functional bureau, rather than remaining designated as a presidential envoy, which would carry more policy heft.
Second, the administration needs urgently to seek reauthorization of the single most important piece of U.S. legislation on the issue, the North Korean Human Rights Act. This legislation, originally signed by President Bush in 2004 and renewed by President Obama, supports the promotion of democracy, rule of law, and development of a market economy in North Korea. It also facilitates programs to promote the freedom of information in, and humanitarian assistance to, North Korea.
Third, the Trump administration should do more to facilitate the resettlement of North Korean asylum seekers in the United States. The U.S. is the only country in the world outside of South Korea that opens its doors to those able to escape humankind’s most brutal regime, yet less than 300 have benefited from the program in well over a decade. Removing North Korea from the now-defunct list of eleven countries with immigration bans was a modest step in this direction, but more could be done to expedite applications and expand support networks for refugee communities in the United States.
Fourth, should the Olympics in February and the Paralympics in March lead to some diplomacy between the U.S. and DPRK, as some press reports have suggested, then Washington must press for access to the country’s prison camps and an accounting of abuses in any direct dialogue with North Korea.
The sight of a united Korean hockey team playing together at these Olympics is a testament to how countries can put aside differences to come together for sport. And if, as South Korean president Moon Jae-in has suggested, the US and DPRK engage in talks as a result of these Games that advance peace on the peninsula, then the world would be better off. But if the Trump administration really wants to own the human rights narrative, then it must follow through on its apparent advocacy at the Olympics with real policy deliverables. That is the only way to ensure that the real winners of the Winter Olympics are the 20 million people of North Korea.
Andrew Elliott Cha is President and Founder of Serv4all, an NGO dedicated to social justice and human rights.