Are Human Rights Still Diplomatically Viable? A Look At The U.S-North Korea Summit


It has been almost exactly one year since the North Korean government released the 22-year-old Otto Warmbier back to his family in the U.S. Tragically, the story did not continue on to have a happy ending as Warmbier passed away mere days after returning from his year of imprisonment and torture. At the time, this shocking and callous treatment of a young American citizen spurred President Donald Trump to denounce North Korea as a state sponsor of terror. At the ensuing meeting of the United Nations, he scathingly berated the North Korean regime for “depravity” and swore that Otto’s death “would not be in vain.” His actions this week at the North Korea-U.S Summit in Singapore, however, speak to a different agenda.

Diplomacy lives and dies by compromise, but when Trump arrived at the summit with nothing but words of flattery for Kim Jong-Un, it was less of an outstretched hand and more of a gut punch to a world which, until that point, had been told that the United States—and its leader—were firmly dedicated to condemnation of Kim’s atrocious record of human rights abuses. By addressing Kim as a “very talented” leader with a “deep love for his people,” Trump runs the risk of normalizing the North Korean regime. This is not the first time that a U.S president has put diplomacy above potential humanitarian loss. In previous diplomatic missions between the two nations, President Barack Obama was accused of legitimizing human rights abuses by performing a salute to the generals of the same regime. Each time, human rights issues “necessarily” fall to the background when issues such as nuclear armament are on the table.

This does not necessarily have to be the case. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights, under the Obama administration, Robert King, points out that the current state of the U.S-North Korea diplomatic relationship is one in which it is absolutely possible to push the idea that improving human rights in North Korea will lead to a more solid standing of the regime itself. While this may follow easily for Western readers and those who have grown up under democratic regimes, this shifting conception of how a government can remain stable is one that has to be carefully and slowly integrated in order to produce an effect on a regime which has relied on brutalist tactics for decades. Perhaps it is possible to strike a balance between blasting the regime for their blatant disregard for human rights and legitimizing that regime. In this grey area lies potential for diplomacy that can evolve alongside productive diplomatic work in other areas of interest, such as disarmament. As put by foreign analyst James Carafano, “In good U.S diplomacy, human rights is always on the menu. That doesn’t mean it’s always the first course.”

Though Trump promised in a press conference, following the Singapore summit, that North Korea had begun down a path that would “make a lot of people very happy and very safe,” it remains unclear how the president intends to have Kim follow through. Like many other aspects of the summit, it appears though words may have been spoken between the two men, very few of them made it onto paper, leaving the global audience at a loss for hard details of how and when any change will truly be felt.

This points to a worrying global trend of neglect for human rights violations. Though U.S policy remains in strong support of protection of human rights as a cornerstone of modern democracy, the actions of the president, as well as overall a stronger sense of world crisis among U.S citizens, have served to deemphasize their importance. Simply, in a world where crises of every type seem to be popping up everywhere, human rights have been put on the back burner. It remains to be seen if the accords signed during the U.S-North Korea summit will free up channels to bring human rights back into the discussion, or whether they will push it further away from the main stage of diplomatic policy.


About Galen Shen

Galen is a fourth year undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying East Asian Civilizations with a focus on international relations and human rights. Following graduation, she hopes to participate in on the ground relief efforts in under-served communities in East Asia, and later return stateside to pursue graduate studies.