President Donald Trump emerged from his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, perhaps the most brutal abuser of humanity on the planet, with fresh hopes for peace in Korea.
And what stunned many observers was a shift in rhetoric that made Trump sound like a full-blown North Korea apologist.
An estimated 100,000 North Koreans live in political prisons on par with the inhumanity of Nazi German death camps. North Koreans can get locked up in these prisons for offenses as mild as listening to South Korean music.
Kim has personally watched his own people, and members of his own family, executed through savage means.
In his State of the Union address, Trump acknowledged this, calling North Korea “depraved” and shouting out a North Korean defector who had been abused by the regime.
But after meeting Kim on Tuesday, Trump shifted his tone.
“It’s a rough situation over there, there’s no question about it,” Trump said of North Korea’s human rights abuses. “It’s rough in a lot of places by the way, not just there.”
In diplomacy, not every issue can be dealt with at once. Trump, as US president, has a responsibility to deal with North Korea’s nuclear threat toward his people before he champions the rights of North Koreans. But in a media blitz after the summit, he brushed aside and deflected criticism of North Korea’s human-rights record under Kim, calling him “funny,” “smart,” and “talented.”
The UN said in 2014 that North Korea commits “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights.” Amnesty International puts North Korea in a category all its own with its abuses.
Asked in a press conference if he had betrayed the 100,000 or so political prisoners, many of whom would live their lives caged for relatively mild criticism of Kim or deviations the regime’s narratives, Trump tried to argue that he had actually helped them.
“I think I’ve helped them. Things will change. … I think they are one of the great winners today,” Trump said, adding that “there’s not much I can do right now.”
Later, in an interview with Voice of America’s Greta Van Susteren, Trump brushed off a contentious exchange about Kim’s human-rights abuses.
“Really, he’s got a great personality,” Trump told Van Susteren. “He’s a funny guy, he’s very smart, he’s a great negotiator. He loves his people, not that I’m surprised by that, but he loves his people.”
“But he’s starved them. He’s been brutal to them. He still loves his people?” Van Susteren asked.
“Look, he’s doing what he’s seen done, if you look at it,” Trump said.