Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un shake hands in the first-ever meeting between a US president and a North Korean leader, in Singapore in 2018. The fleeting promise of this unprecedented partnership evaporated in 2019. Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb

In 2014, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea found that Pyongyang engages in systemic and widespread human rights violations against its people. With the situation in North Korea not improving in any substantive manner, US policymakers must calibrate how forcefully human rights should be raised vis-à-vis other security concerns in talks with the regime.

Given these choices, the Donald Trump administration decisively chose to de-prioritize human rights in the past two years. However, the latest survey from the Korea Economic Institute (KEI) and YouGov suggests that this posture is misaligned with what the American public sees are its core interests. 

Evolution in Trump administration’s views

Early in the Trump administration, human rights was front and center in US engagement with North Korea. Taking a tough line on North Korean human rights, President Trump devoted a substantial portion of his first State of the Union Address to the issue in January 2018, stating: “No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea.”  

During that same speech, Trump highlighted North Korea’s human-rights violations with his presidential guests, including the parents of Otto Warmbier, a university student who was imprisoned and died shortly after being returned to his parents in a comatose state.  Trump called the Warmbier family “powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world.”

The president also introduced North Korean refugee Ji Song Ho as “another witness to the ominous nature of this regime.” Ji lost his leg after being run over by a train while looking for food during the North Korean famine of the 1990s. He was subsequently tortured by North Korean security officers after he returned from China, where he had gone to find food.

Trump called Ji Song Ho an example of the many “defectors” who had fled North Korea to find freedom and security. Three days after that State of the Union, Trump met with Ji and seven other North Korean defectors in the Oval Office.  

This would all change four months later when Trump met with North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore. Not a word was mentioned about human rights. Eight months later, the two leaders met in Hanoi and the issue of human rights again failed to make the agenda. 

When questioned by the press about human rights, Trump said he had asked the North Korean leader about the death of Otto Warmbier, but Kim professed to have had no knowledge of it. Trump concluded: “I did speak about it, but I don’t believe he [Kim] would have allowed that to happen. It just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen.”  

Public’s desire for human rights

While North Korea’s nuclear program was discussed at the Singapore and Hanoi talks, but at the expense of human rights not being raised, there is strong support among Americans for addressing the issue of human rights with North Korea.

The latest KEI survey of American attitudes found that 83% of respondents believe the US should push for human-rights improvements in North Korea, with 50% indicating this is “very important” and another 33% calling it “important.” Only 7% of Americans believe human rights are unimportant.  

Among Americans who follow international events and those who follow Asia-Pacific events, support for pressing human rights grows to above 90%.

There is similarly overwhelming support for providing humanitarian assistance to North Koreans among survey respondents. Some 53% approve of providing humanitarian aid to North Koreans. Only 19% do not approve providing assistance. Again, those who “follow international news” and those who “follow Asia and Pacific affairs” are even stronger in their support humanitarian assistance – 58% and 61% respectively.  

Approval for providing Covid-19 assistance to North Koreans was slightly lower, but respondents again supported aid by a clear plurality, with 47% supporting Covid-19 aid, 32% unsure, and only 22% unsupportive.

I suspect that the likely issue here is whether the United States has the necessary medications and health-care equipment to deal with the pandemic in the United States. At a time when media have indicated shortages of masks and PPE (personal protective equipment), and a vaccine still not yet available, many Americans are likely to be cautious about helping others until we have satisfied our own medical needs. 

However, the individuals who follow international news and those who follow the Asia-Pacific region were firmer advocates of Covid-19 assistance – 55% and 57% respectively support providing such aid to North Korea.

Implications for policymakers

Two important takeaways emerge from these data. First, Americans distinguish between the government of North Korea and the North Korean people. There is a clear mandate for the United States to press North Korea on its abysmal human-rights record. But at the same time, there is recognition that the North Korean people need humanitarian assistance. 

The poor human-rights record is the consequence of a corrupt, authoritarian leadership, but the humanitarian needs are the result of the leadership’s failings, and the people need and should get US help.

The second takeaway from the survey is the significant gap between American opinion and Trump administration policies. Strong support for addressing human rights is consistent with individuals of both main political parties – 85% of Republicans and 88% of Democrats support pressing Pyongyang on human rights. The current administration, however, has largely ignored North Korean human rights since March 2018.

No progress has been made on improving US relations with North Korea since before the Singapore summit in 2018. President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have said nothing further about North Korea’s abysmal human-rights record. 

Complicating matters, the United States withdrew from participating in the United Nations Human Rights Council, which played a major role in pressing North Korea on human rights, and has ceased supporting a discussion of these issues at the UN Security Council.

From 2014-2017 the United States led efforts at the Security Council on an annual special session to discuss North Korea’s appalling human-rights record. In the autumn of 2018, the effort was halfhearted and unsuccessful, and in 2019, the United States refused to support a session on North Korea human rights and prevented discussion of that issue.

Another gap between public opinion and the Trump administration is in providing humanitarian assistance to North Korea. International organizations have assessed that there is an urgent need for food assistance in the country, particularly for young children and pregnant and breastfeeding women. 

International experts have also identified an urgent need for medicines and medical aid, particularly for dealing with tuberculosis and malaria.

The Trump administration has made little effort to provide aid to North Korea, although a majority of respondents to the national survey supported humanitarian aid. Administration policies, in fact, have made it more difficult to provide help to the country. 

The US has been the principal force behind tough sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear-weapons and missile programs. The sanctions legislation and regulations do allow for the provision of humanitarian aid, but the Trump administration has prevented private American aid organizations from using the humanitarian exception to provide assistance.

This has meant severe reductions in aid provided by US non-governmental organizations that are largely funded by private donors. The United States is stopping or discouraging the provision of medicines against multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) and food for nutrition-deprived schoolchildren. It is not clear how this will pressure the country to give up nuclear weapons. 

The human-rights situation in North Korea will not change overnight, but it is also unlikely to improve in the absence of US efforts to encourage Pyongyang to respect the rights of its citizens. This may not be an issue that North Korea wants raised, but it’s one that the American people support. 

Robert R King is a non-resident fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former US special envoy for North Korea human rights. He has authored five books on international relations. King holds a PhD in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. The views expressed on Asia Times are his own.