"This will not be just a photo op," President Trump said Thursday of his meeting next week with Kim Jong Un. "This will be—at a minimum, we'll start with, perhaps, a good relationship. And that's something that's very important toward the ultimate making of a good deal." Later that day the president added that he might, if things go well, invite Kim to visit him in the United States, perhaps even at the White House. "He has also discussed [possibly] golfing with Kim," a "senior Trump administration official" told the Daily Beast.
Golf? Too soon, Mr. President. Unless this is part of a strategy to get under Kim's skin—he'll be uncomfortable, after all, when he hits the links at Mar-a-Lago wearing charcoal fatigues. More likely it's another example of the president's view that relations between leaders are more important than the relationships between states, regimes, cultures, and ideas. You try to woo Xi Jinping with "a most beautiful" piece of chocolate cake, for example. Even if the results are not ultimately what you wished for.
Let's remind ourselves of whom, exactly, President Trump plans to meet next week. For Kim Jong Un is no ordinary man. The Dear Leader occupies the summit of a hierarchical system of some 25 million people whose lives are controlled by his central government in Pyongyang. Some years ago, Christopher Hitchens described the ruling juche ideology this way: "It is based on totalitarian ‘military first' mobilization, is maintained by slave labor, and instills an ideology of the most unapologetic racism and xenophobia." He did not mention the troops and artillery North Korea has amassed on its southern border, and the engineers who toil in underground laboratories, building nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the United States.
Kim, his father and grandfather, and the regime they direct have given no indication, ever, that they recognize the dignity and worth of human life. Some 36,000 Americans died fighting off the north and its Chinese ally between 1950 and 1953. The North Korean government caused a famine in the 1990s that killed somewhere between hundreds of thousands and more than one million people. Another hundred thousand or so are imprisoned, right now, in the North Korean gulag where slaves are starved, beaten, tortured, and killed. Even high-ranking officials are subject to "liquidation" by sickening methods, including execution by a firing squad of anti-aircraft batteries.
A 2014 U.N. report found that
Systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations have been, and are being, committed by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials. In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the Commission constitute crimes against humanity. These are not mere excesses of the state. They are essential components of a political system that has moved far from the ideals on which it claims to be founded. The gravity, scale, and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.
No parallel. And no conscience. From the U.S. State Department's "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017:
The people of North Korea faced egregious human rights violations by the government in nearly all reporting categories including: extrajudicial killings; disappearances; arbitrary arrests and detentions; torture; political prison camps in which conditions were often harsh, life threatening, and included forced and compulsory labor; unfair trials; rigid controls over many aspects of citizens' lives, including arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, and correspondence, and denial of the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement; denial of the ability to choose their government; coerced abortion; trafficking in persons; severe restrictions on worker rights, including denial of the right to organize independent unions and domestic forced labor through mass mobilizations and as a part of the reeducation system.
What Kim Jong Un is, is a monster. And that monstrousness informs his statecraft. It influences the means he adopts to remain in power. It leads him to deceive, dissemble, brutalize. And build a nuclear deterrent.
Why would he trade it away? Maybe for reassurance—but such pledges can be reversed at a moment's notice. Maybe for a lot of dough—though he always could turn the missile machine back on when and if the money disappeared. Maybe because he felt backed into a corner—but who knows what China, Russia, and Syria have been whispering in his ear.
Singapore is an opportunity for Trump to size up an adversary. At best it will inspire Kim to take verifiable steps towards disarmament. At worst, it will send the sort of mixed signal that has led to disaster. But as you watch the proceedings, do not allow the following to happen: Do not permit the smiles and handshakes to obscure the evil reality of Kim Jong Un—or the memory of his victims.