The Magazine

Kim Jong Il Gets a Free Pass

. . . from the Obama administration.

Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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In his Nobel acceptance speech last week, President Obama spoke eloquently on what he called a "just peace"--a peace that is not possible without the recognition of basic human rights. Where human rights are not protected, "peace is a hollow promise," he said.

No matter how callously defined, neither America's interests--nor the world's--are served by the denial of human aspirations. So even as we respect the unique culture and traditions of different countries, America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal. We will bear witness to the quiet dignity of reformers like Aung Sang Suu Kyi; to the bravery of Zimbabweans who cast their ballots in the face of beatings; to the hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Iran. It is telling that the leaders of these governments fear the aspirations of their own people more than the power of any other nation. And it is the responsibility of all free people and free nations to make clear that these movements--these movements of hope and history--they have us on their side.

It was an audacious claim. In the aftermath of the stolen Iranian elections in June, the president did indeed "bear witness" to the reformers in Iran but he did nothing else and categorically rejected his "responsibility" to make clear that their movement of "hope and history" had us on their side. Indeed, he argued that doing so would amount to "meddling" and would thus set back their cause.

In Oslo, the president went on:

Let me also say this: The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach--condemnation without discussion--can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.

The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone, but it should at least start there. And when a president refuses a meeting with the Dalai Lama or neglects to condemn government-backed violence against protesters, then his claims to be on the side of the movements of hope and history ring hollow.

As Obama was speaking in Oslo, his national security adviser, James Jones, released a statement on International Human Rights Day, noting that he and his staff had met with human rights advocates at the White House:

I reiterated the president's strong and unwavering commitment to the advancement of human rights and democracy around the world, including the right to choose one's leaders, to speak one's mind, to assemble freely, and to worship as one pleases. .  .  . In addition to civil and political rights, the president has also stressed that our pursuit of human rights and democracy must deliver real improvements in people's everyday lives--by ensuring that people can meet their basic needs and expanding opportunity and prosperity.

Jones touted the "strong record" of promoting human rights by the Obama White House and got specific.

We have condemned human rights abuses in Sudan, Cuba, Russia, Guinea, Zimbabwe and Syria; deplored the systematic rapes and sexual violence in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo; and called attention to the continued repression in Burma and Iran. The President has also been clear on our commitment to equal rights: for women; ethnic and religious minorities; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals.

But what has the Obama administration done? Exhortation alone, as the president said, is not enough. A bigger problem with this list is its glaring omission: North Korea.

Kim Jong Il's totalitarian dictatorship would probably rank at the top of any objective list of cruelest regimes on earth. Human Rights Watch characterizes the state of human rights in North Korea as "dire." It points out in its latest report that "North Korea runs large prison camps where hundreds of thousands of its citizens--including children--are enslaved in deplorable conditions." What's more,

the government publicly executes individuals for stealing state property, hoarding food, and other 'anti-socialist' crimes. .  .  . Individuals who leave the country without state permission are often considered traitors and can face lengthy prison terms and possible execution upon return.

So why wasn't North Korea mentioned? Was it merely an oversight--did Obama officials simply forget how bad things are there? Or was it a strategic omission--a signal to Kim Jong Il that the U.S. government will set aside concerns about human rights if his regime will return to the nuclear negotiating table?

The failure to mention North Korea coincides with the return of Stephen Bosworth, the Obama administration's special envoy to Pyongyang, from what the administration has described as "positive" talks with North Korea on nuclear issues. At a press conference in Seoul, after three days of meetings with the North Koreans, Bosworth did not mention human rights.

Why the free pass on human rights? The North Koreans have not committed to eliminating or reducing their nuclear weapons program, and even if they had, such a promise, given their history of broken promises, would be virtually meaningless. In fact, the North Koreans, after three days of meetings, would not even commit to returning to the Six Party talks--hardly a surprise given the administration's stated position of "strategic patience" with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The very fact that the high-level face-to-face meetings took place is a blow to human rights in North Korea, as any such discussions necessarily lend legitimacy to the repressive regime in Pyongyang, particularly when such bilateral talks came after repeated demands for them from the North Koreans. And the fact that the Obama administration seems unwilling not only to "call attention to" human rights abuses in North Korea but even to mention them suggests that Obama's "unwavering commitment" to human rights around the world is mere Oslo rhetoric.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.