While reports of abuses have been many, much of the evidence stems from defectors from the isolated regime not from reports done by observers in-country. Experts have said the approach of focusing on nuclear issues first and human rights later is a mistake, not just morally but strategically.
Mr Trump had said a few days ago that the issue of prison camps, so-called gulags, “could” come up but two officials have told NBC News that the president will not bring up the issue. He has said that if North Korea agrees to halt developing its nuclear weapons development programme, security and financial aid is guaranteed – not necessarily by the US, but partners in the Asia region.
John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch, told The Independent it was a “strange thing to say” given sanctions on North Korea are directly tied to human rights issues.
Relief from sanctions will likely have to be an inducement to get North Korea to agree to denuclearise and even come to the table for further talks, the latter of which is the primary goal of the Singapore meeting.
Mr Sifton also said he had spoken with staff of the National Security Council and Treasury Department from which sanctions lists are controlled, who said that they understand human rights need to be discussed per US law.
The issue is that “only one person makes the decision on what to say in these meetings,” but Mr Sifton noted that briefing notes given to the president likely noted the requirement to discuss human rights should Mr Kim put the condition on future talks that he be taken off of sanctions lists.
“The answer to that is that he is on there because of his human rights” violations allegations, Mr Sifton said.
TJ Pempel, a politics professor at the University of California-Berkeley, told The Independent he has low expectations for the summit.
He said he sees the entire summit as posturing; “a media event pushed by Trump (and Kim) for their own domestic purposes.
“I expect a lot of photos, lots of handshakes, lots of statements about “peace is at hand” but nothing substantive on nuclear weapons, human rights or conventional weapons,” Mr Pempel said.
Mr Pempel and Mr Sifton both noted that these discussions on human rights should have been taking place all along and that they are intrinsically tied to the issue of halting development of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development.
Though Mr Sifton said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has shown he is willing to discuss human rights issues with North Korean officials, the origin of that willingness could be a problem.
Juliette Kayyem, a professor at Harvard University and former Obama-era official in the Department of Homeland Security, previously told The Independent the “Pentagon-styled” Mr Bolton “seems [to see] the military as the solution to all threats and it seems inconceivable he can change that opinion”. The moustachioed former diplomat became known for his intractable views on beginning the Iraq War, defying the United Nations.
We “want them to pursue it for the right reasons,” but Mr Sifton said the fear now is that Mr Bolton, and to a certain extent the equally hawkish Mr Pompeo, will use human rights violations as a justification for military action against Pyongyang should talks fall apart or the summit not go well as was done before the Iraq war began.
Though Mr Trump could workaround US sanctions law and past executive orders in order to relieve North Korea of some sanctions with a new executive order, it would be temporary at best. Businesses and allies are unlikely to take well to that given the uncertainty and likely unilateral nature of it.
What may ensure that human rights are an integrated part of the denuclearisation talks is actually Mr Pompeo himself, Mr Sifton noted. Several Congress members, including Republicans, have written to him asking that human rights – specifically allowing international observers to enter the country – be part of any kind of agreement and the new Secretary of State has proven he is eager to keep Congress happy in the diplomatic realm, at least.
There has been some speculation that China may have influenced this particular portion the talks given how the US has ignored discussions on human rights for the sake of a better economic relationship. Mr Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping have also had a somewhat tense relationship of late over trade issues. However, Mr Sifton said it was likely South Korea that was pushing not discussing human rights at the start of potential future talks.
South Korean president Moon Jae-in ran his campaign last year on the progressive platform of a “sunshine policy,” which advocates for opening economic doors with the North. It is a view shared by many of the younger generation in the country who did not live through the Korean War. But, the more conservative right have pushed for a much tougher stance on human rights and Mr Kim, having held on to the memory of war-time atrocities.
Mr Pempel said that even if Mr Kim agreed to further negotiations in Singapore, “it will be the result of long term negotiations by lower level officials over a multi-years process” and will require multilateral cooperation between Mr Trump and South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China particularly because of Pyongyang’s reliance on the latter for trade in oil and food despite UN sanctions.