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Former Envoy To North Korea For Human Rights Issues On Trump-Kim Summit


During the first year of the Trump administration, the president unequivocally condemned North Korea's human rights record.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: An estimated 100,000 North Koreans suffer in gulags, toiling in forced labor and enduring torture, starvation, rape and murder on a constant basis.

SHAPIRO: But the issue was not a major focus of the first summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last June. Now, Kim and Trump are on their way to Hanoi, Vietnam, for a second meeting, and human rights advocates see an opportunity.

Robert King was special envoy for North Korea human rights issues at the State Department during the Obama administration. His position has not been filled in the Trump administration. Ambassador, welcome.

ROBERT KING: Thank you. It's good to be here.

SHAPIRO: North Korea is a famously closed-off society, so it's hard to know exactly what is happening inside the country. But what do we know about the scale of human rights abuses there?

KING: Well, the scale of human rights abuses in North Korea is actually fairly well-known. We're marking the fifth anniversary this month of the report of the Commission of Inquiry, a U.N. human rights commission. They concluded that, in fact, there are crimes against humanity being committed in North Korea. They had a number of North Koreans who had fled North Korea and were able to talk about conditions there. They had experts who talked about what we can see from satellite images. So I mean, we know quite a bit about what's happening.

SHAPIRO: That quote we heard from President Trump - an estimated 100,000 people in North Korean gulags suffering from torture, starvation, rape and murder. Does that sound accurate to you?

KING: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: There wasn't any progress on this issue in the last meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un. Do you think this time will be any different?

KING: There's no indication of it. What the problem seems to be is that the Trump administration - at least Trump has used human rights not as something we need to work on but as a stick to beat the North Koreans until they come around to talking about nuclear weapons. He was very careful to mention human rights in his United Nations speech in the fall of 2017. He mentioned it in 2018 in his State of the Union address.

After the summit was set up, nary a word from the White House on human rights conditions in North Korea. It wasn't raised in the last summit. There's no indication so far that it's going to be raised in this summit.

SHAPIRO: President Trump said they did discuss this at the summit in Singapore, though relatively briefly compared to the issue of denuclearization. But he says it did come up.

KING: It may have been raised. The North Koreans certainly didn't engage on the issue. And there was nothing mentioned by the North Koreans about human rights in their take on the summit, which suggests - wasn't an issue for them.

SHAPIRO: Well, what do you think a reasonable expectation is? What is achievable?

KING: Well, the first thing is raising the issue. I don't think we start with the worst problem, the most sensitive issues. But there are things that we ought to do in terms of encouraging the flow of information, for example. North Koreans are extremely limited in terms of their access to information about what is going on, both in their own country and outside. The government controls information very tightly. That's an area where we could make progress.

We could press the North Koreans for more contact, for more openness, more travel for North Koreans. There are a number of areas we could work on.

SHAPIRO: Is there an argument that because North Korea has the ability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles at the United States, it makes sense for a president to prioritize that over an issue like human rights abuses?

KING: There's no question that North Korea's military capability is the most important issue that we face in terms of dealing with North Korea. But we're trying to get North Korea to accept international standards in terms of nonproliferation - this kind of thing.

The North Koreans have undertaken to accept international standards in human rights. They are signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If we let them get away with doing nothing on human rights when they've committed themselves to observe those human rights obligations, what does that say about our ability to press the North Koreans to make progress on international nuclear standards we're trying to get them to accept?

SHAPIRO: Ambassador Robert King, thank you so much.

KING: My pleasure.

SHAPIRO: Ambassador King was special envoy for North Korea human rights issues at the State Department during the Obama administration. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.