*By Abraham Cooper and Greg Scarlatoiu
Dear President Trump,
We understand that a trip to the DMZ may not be included in the agenda of your upcoming trip to South Korea. We would respectfully argue that a presidential DMZ visit and address would be critical to efforts to bring peace, security and freedom to the Korean people and other nations in Northeast Asia as well as the security of the United States. Against the backdrop of unprecedented nuclear missile-rattling, all eyes would be focused on our president as he stands at the DMZ straddling North and South Korea. Would you continue to verbally joust with the ‘rocket man’ or come armed with a bag of carrots?
Mr. President: Whatever body language you use; we urge you to use this opportunity for a long-neglected global teaching moment.
First, the world has long forgotten the Korean War, and the more than 60,000 US servicemen and women who were killed or went missing in action, the 100,000 wounded, and the more than 7,000 captured. Their gallant sacrifice, and that of our allies, preserved the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and became the cornerstone of the Miracle on the River Han. After going through a few decades of rapid economic development, South Korea has become the world’s 12th largest economy. Free, democratic, prosperous South Korea, a fully responsible and engaged member of the international community, has become a role model for others in Northeast Asia and beyond.
In stark contrast with the South, North Korea has remained a human rights toxic wasteland. Run by three generations of an evil family cult, North Korea today is a post-communist, post-industrial, dynastic kleptocracy. The fundamental strategic objective of the Kim Jong-un regime, just like the Kim Il-sung and the Kim Jong-il regimes before, is its own survival. Adamantly refusing to open up to the world and to undertake reforms that would benefit its citizens, the Kim regime believes that nukes, ballistic missiles and keeping its elites wealthy—content but afraid—will guarantee its survival.
In order to produce its tools of death and fuel its giftpolitik, Kim Jong-un needs hard currency and resources. The regime extracts these critical resources by severely exploiting its people at home and abroad, and through exercising merciless coercion, control, surveillance and punishment of its entire population.
Mr. President, we hope that you would use the DMZ platform to signal most of North Korea’s 25 million people, victimized by Kim Jong-un’s fearpolitik, that they are not forgotten. Today, 120,000 North Korean men, women, and children are held at five political prison camps in North Korea. Three generations of the same family are punished for the alleged wrongdoing of a suspected political offender—all snatched from their homes in the middle of the night, victims of enforced disappearances. Many other perceived political offenders undergo a semblance of judicial process and receive prison sentences at reeducation through labor forced labor camps, where they are mixed with the common prison population. All prisoners are subjected to a vicious cycle of forced labor and induced malnutrition, while many of them are tortured or executed, publicly or secretly.
In February 2014, a UN Commission of Inquiry found that many of the egregious human rights violations perpetrated in North Korea pursuant to policies established at the highest levels of the state amount to crimes against humanity.
But North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats have all but buried these grave abusive human rights practices.
Mr. President, you could use your DMZ speech to expose the undeniable nexus between North Korea’s human rights violations and the security threats the Kim Jong-un regime poses to its Asian neighbors and the world. This is a regime which fuels its weapons programs through ruthless exploitation of its people and denial of basic human rights.
Today, the DMZ separates not only South from North Korea, but freedom from tyranny and prosperity from abject poverty. The DMZ may not be the Berlin Wall—it’s probably much worse. Mr. President, as you prepare for your upcoming visit, you are correctly warning Kim Jong-un to stand down. But the most important words you could utter as you look across the border are those you could address to the people of North Korea. Tell them they are not forgotten and will not be forsaken; that this president will ensure that the fate of everyday North Koreans, especially those trapped in the unyielding gulag systems, remains at the forefront of our prayers and actions.
*Co-author Greg Scarlatoiu is Executive Director Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)