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The North Korea Human Rights Dimension in the State of the Union


By Mark Tokola

North Korea figured prominently in President Trump’s January 30, 2018, State of the Union message – remarkably so.  The President’s speech generally focused on domestic issues such as the economy, immigration, infrastructure, and health.  The part of the speech devoted to foreign policy mentioned China, Russia, Afghanistan and Iran, but was mostly about North Korea.  Dramatically, the family of Otto Warmbier, the student who was jailed in North Korea and died shortly after his return to the United States in 2017, attended the speech and were pointed out by the President.  A North Korean defector, Seong-ho, was also in the gallery and stood to accept applause, holding up the crutch he uses to deal with having lost a leg in North Korea before his escape.

President Trump’s comments regarding North Korea were very similar to those he gave before the South Korean National Assembly in Seoul on November 8, 2017.  In that speech and in the State of the Union address he emphasized, far more than any previous President, North Korea’s abysmal human rights record.  The President described a link between the cruelty of the regime towards its own people with its rogue nature as an international actor.  This was no more than expressing the truth.  Future generations may wonder why there was not more of an international outcry regarding the state crimes perpetrated against the people of North Korea.

The other similarity between the President’s Seoul speech and State of the Union Address was its focus on the regime in North Korea rather than on Kim Jong-un personally.  In the State of the Union transcript, the name Kim Jong-un does not appear at all.  It is useful to distinguish between the dictator and the regime.  If Kim Jong-un were replaced tomorrow as the head of North Korea (which seems unlikely) there is no guarantee that his successor would pose any less of a threat to the region or to the United States, or that oppression of the North Korean people would end.  Kim Jong-un should be held accountable for the acts of his regime, but he could not carry them out without willing supporters.  The problem is the behavior of the regime, not just Kim.  There is no value in magnifying his personal importance.

Some commentators have noted the lack of a mention of sanctions on North Korea, with the possible exception of the President’s reference to “maximum pressure.”  One way to interpret this is that the current sanctions are working, a proposition which has supporting evidence.  If the President announced that current sanctions were working to pressure North Korea, it could lead other countries to take their foot off the pedal, assuming that they were working well enough that they could enforce them less vigorously.  If the President said more sanctions were required, that equally might lead countries to assume that no amount of sanctions would work and therefore there was no point in their enforcement efforts.  No mention of sanctions at all was probably the surest means of maintaining the current, probably effective, level of pressure.

Finally, the President in his State of the Union address said that complacency and concessions would only invite aggression and provocation.  He vowed not to repeat “the mistakes of previous administrations that got us into this dangerous position.”  Some commentators found these remarks belligerent, but the President has to balance his remarks between the United States’ desire for peace and the need to deter North Korea.  Finding the right words to appear dangerous to adversaries while appearing prudent and cautious to the American public and allies has long been a challenge for Presidents.  The unambiguous message of this year’s State of the Union message was that the Korean Peninsula poses dangers and requires attention.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from the White House’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.