Standing with the North Korean People Will Advance America’s Interests

June 20, 2018 | Natan Sharansky
About the author: Natan Sharansky was a political prisoner in the Soviet Union and a minister in four Israeli governments. He is the author of Fear No Evil, The Case for Democracy, and Defending Identity.

Recalling his own experiences as a dissident and “prisoner of Zion” in the USSR, Natan Sharansky urges President Trump to speak publicly about human-rights abuses in North Korea.

In the case of the Soviet Union, it was a combination of external pressure from world powers and internal pressure from dissidents that ultimately brought down the Iron Curtain. By linking their negotiations with Moscow to the latter’s respect for human rights, Western leaders put the regime on notice that they took the wellbeing of ordinary Soviet citizens seriously, and they gave us dissidents the confidence to challenge the regime knowing that they were on our side.

Sadly, the long-suffering people of North Korea are not yet in such a position. Although President Trump’s meeting with Kim was a historic event with potentially dramatic consequences for nuclear disarmament, it is less clear—though no less important—what effect the meeting will have on the dismal human-rights situation inside the hermit kingdom. . . . [C]urrent and would-be dissidents need reassurance that America and other world powers understand their struggle and will defend their basic rights.

It is unfortunate that some of Trump’s subsequent remarks have conveyed the opposite message. In the meeting’s aftermath, Trump said that Kim had proved himself “very talented” in taking over totalitarian rule from his father and averred that the young dictator “loves his country very much.” Even more troubling, he declared that North Koreans love Kim in return, supporting him with “great fervor.” The president may have been attempting to solidify his newfound goodwill with Kim. Yet his comments are likely to have a deeply dispiriting effect on North Koreans. . . .

There are many situations in which world powers must cooperate with dictators on security issues despite their human-rights abuses. Even in the context of such tactical alliances, however, it is a mistake to praise relations between an unjust regime and those who suffer under it. Soviet dissidents were acutely sensitive to every statement coming from foreign leaders, relying heavily on the knowledge that they kept tabs on our fate and had not abandoned us to our tormentors. Just as standing firmly with dissidents back then furthered the long-term goals of the United States, so too standing with the North Korean people now will advance rather than hinder America’s objectives.

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