Sources in the Trump administration made it clear on Monday that human rights would not be on the agenda when Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un finally meet on Tuesday morning in Singapore. The only issue would be the future of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
This may sound callous and cynical when describing the first meeting between the president of the United States of America, who until very recently would unofficially be referred to as the “leader of the free world,” and the absolute ruler of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a nation whose human rights record is so dismal and opaque that we have no idea how many hundreds of thousands have been murdered and starved to death there in recent decades.
But whether or not the millions of North Koreans suffering under the Kim dynasty are of any concern to Trump, the only reason he is meeting Kim is the nuclear threat he poses to the U.S, and its allies.
But to be fair to Trump, he is not alone in ignoring the blood on his interlocutor’s hands. The senior envoy of his predecessor Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, didn’t seek to engage Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Jawad Zarif, on the Islamic Republic’s dreadful human rights record either. The only item on the agenda on the series of meetings between Kerry and Zarif, who developed a friendly rapport with each other, was Iran’s nuclear program.
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Indeed, the entire premise of summits meetings, which became an established mode of high-level diplomacy between nations only on the eve of the Second World War, was that they rarely talk about human rights within each other’s countries. And just like all previous summits, the Kim-Trump summit will be judged only over whether it will ultimately postpone a war, and have nothing to do with any improvements in the situation of North Koreans.
On being informed that Germany had invaded the Soviet Union, 77 years ago this month, Winston Churchill is said to have told his private secretary, “If Hitler invaded hell, I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” Later that day, in a broadcast to the British people, Churchill reminded them that “no one has been a more consistent opponent of Communism for the last 25 years. I will unsay no word I have spoken about it. But all this fades away before the spectacle which is now unfolding. The past, with its crimes, its follies, its tragedies, flashes away.”
At that point, before Nazi Germany had begun to implement the Final Solution and carry out the genocide it would commit particularly in the areas it captured from the Soviets, Churchill would have certainly been aware that Joseph Stalin still had much more blood on his hands than Adolf Hitler. The Nazis had committed numerous atrocities, but the millions of corpses were yet to pile in Eastern Europe. Stalin however had already directed the murders of millions in the 1930s – in the deliberate starving in Ukraine and the purges of the “Great Terror.” (Most historians believe that by the end of the World War, the Germans had slaughtered 11 million non-combatants, making Hitler the bigger mass-murderer.)
But even if at that stage there was no question that Stalin was in numbers the greater mass-murderer, Churchill’s priorities were clear. “We have but one aim and one single, irrevocable purpose. We are resolved to destroy Hitler and every vestige of the Nazi regime. From this nothing will turn us – nothing.”
As cynical as it may sound, the death toll was not the main consideration in allying with Stalin. Despite his staunch opposition to Communism, Churchill’s choice was clear. Hitler represented a much more evil and dangerous ideology than Communism and threatened the Western world to a far greater degree. Churchill would meet Stalin five times for summits over the next few years (on the fifth at Potsdam, Churchill had to leave in the middle for Election Day in Britain, where he lost and was replaced by Clement Attlee). Human rights in the Soviet Union were not discussed at these summits nor at the Moscow summit in October 1944, Churchill even signed the secret “percentages agreement” with Stalin, effectively promising Soviet control of postwar Eastern Europe. Only eight months after he last met Stalin in Potsdam, Churchill, with President Truman by his side, gave his famous speech that “an iron curtain has descended across the continent,” and behind that curtain, the people of Eastern Europe were being denied freedom, by that same man who was his ally.
While no one could have blamed Churchill for choosing to cooperate with Stalin when Britain was fighting Germany alone (in June 1941, when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, the United States had yet to enter the war), the pattern for summits between the leaders of democratic nations and genocidal tyrants, where human rights was not an issue, was established by him.
The first truly modern summits between rival leaders, as opposed to those held by foreign ministers and diplomats as had been the fashion earlier, were the two held by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Hitler in September 1938, the second of which, in Munich, also included French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier and Italy’s leader Benito Mussolini. The Munich agreement, which allowed Germany to annex sovereign parts of Czechoslovakia, was hailed by much of the world as a success at the time, as it was seen as a way of averting almost certain war.
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History has judged the Munich summit as a miserable failure, and vindicated its few opponents at the time, led by Churchill. But their opposition had little to do with Hitler’s actions within Germany to the thousands of political opponents who had already been murdered by the Nazis, and the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws. Britain as an imperial nation holding hundreds of millions of subjects across the world could hardly at that point argue from a position of moral superiority, though he couched his speech to parliament after Munich in terms of “self-determination” for the Czech people. Churchill simply predicted, rightly, that the Sudetenland would not be enough for Hitler and that appeasement would not work. A major war with Germany was inevitable.
Despite the recurring fashion for Western leaders to talk of a foreign policy based on civil and human rights, it has rarely been a major consideration. It wasn’t on the agenda at the major summits between the leaders of the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. These focused on geopolitical issues, mainly on nuclear arms control. And they were important for maintaining a level of personal contact that helped keep the Cold War from escalating into a Third World War.
When Richard Nixon flew to China in 1972, he put his own credibility on the line, and that of the United States. It wasn’t even clear whether Mao Zedong would meet him. He was risking criticism back at home from members of his own Republican Party, some of whom may have accused him of appeasement, as well as from his Democratic rivals. Mao’s decisions and policies led by most accounts to a greater death toll during his three decades in power than those of Hitler and Stalin together. But that was hardly a consideration in Nixon’s decision to make the trip.
When Nixon finally met him, he didn’t spare the praise, flattering him that “the chairman’s writings moved a nation and have changed a world.” These writings inspired the deaths of at least 50 million people as well, but the Nixon-Mao summit is considered a great success. Nixon may be remembered as one of the United States’ most evil presidents, at least before Trump, but by going to China he helped engineer a deeper divide in the Communist camp and energize the process that would ultimately lead to the end of the Vietnam War. It did nothing to help the Chinese people, who would continue to suffer even worse repression during the Cultural Revolution. It could even be argued that Nixon’s visit helped Mao strengthen his position and deepen that repression.
The sad truth is that the Trump-Kim summit will be judged a success on similar lines. Averting war, containing Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal, or even “denuclearization,” is unlikely to mean a better future for the 20-odd million people of North Korea; we don’t even know exactly how many there are because the great famine of the 1990s, or as the regime calls it “The Arduous March,” could have caused millions of unreported deaths. The unspoken condition of any agreement with Kim will be that he is to be granted indefinite immunity from regime change or indeed any form of external intervention. Trump, just like every Western leader before him, is trying to buy peace at the price of the most basic human rights.