Barreling toward a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, US President Donald Trump has his sights set on a nuclear deal, leaving allies and advocates worried that he might give short shrift to human rights abuses and regional security concerns.
Trump has largely kept his focus on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula ahead of the meeting on Tuesday next week in Singapore, stressing that it might take more than one meeting to achieve that goal.
That singular focus could mean Trump looks past a range of troublesome actions by the regime as he promises Kim “protection” in exchange for giving up a nuclear program that could pose a direct threat to the US mainland.
Critics have started invoking the Iranian nuclear deal that Trump exited last month as a cautionary tale.
Republican lawmakers and some Democrats objected to the 2015 agreement for not doing more to halt that nation’s ballistic missile program, and support for Hezbollah and other extremist groups.
“We want to make sure the president’s desire for a deal with North Korea doesn’t saddle the United States, Japan and South Korea with a bad deal,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters on Monday.
White House officials say the plight of the North Korean people, who live under one of the world’s most repressive governments, is not a priority for the summit.
In a meeting that lasted more than an hour on Friday last week with North Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee Vice Chairman Kim Yong-chol, Trump said he did not raise the issue of human rights.
Trump did say he “probably” would bring up human rights when he meets with the North Korean leader — “and maybe in great detail.”
As for other concerns, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders last week would not say whether Trump would bring up North Korea’s extensive chemical and biological weapons programs since the priority is the nuclear question.
Meanwhile, US allies in the region are privately pressing the administration to maintain pressure on North Korea over its regional missile program out of concern that Trump could boost the security of the US at the expense of its partners.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is meeting Trump at the White House tomorrow to advocate for his nation’s interests at the summit.
Senate Democrats on Monday released a letter to the Trump administration outlining the parameters of what they believe constitutes a satisfactory agreement — including a call for a permanent end to North Korea’s nuclear, chemical and biological programs, a suspension of ballistic tests and anytime, anywhere inspections.
The delicate balancing of US needs and alliances with the promotion of human rights abroad has long bedeviled its leaders and Trump is not the first US president to concentrate on a nuclear issue at the expense of other matters.
However, Trump has eschewed the path of his predecessors, who explicitly declared the promotion of human rights to be in the national interest, even if they were forced to make Faustian bargains with unsavory actors.
The president’s national security strategy, released in December last year, said little on the subject and it was left to US Vice President Mike Pence to elevate the issue during a February trip to the region.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio said that while the summit presents the opportunity for a denuclearized peninsula, “I urge the Trump administration to also prioritize human rights and hold accountable the North Korean dictatorship for being one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.”
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