Some of the syntax was challenging, and the plug for his golf course in the speech before the National Assembly was tawdry. And we were disappointed to hear the focus on bilateral deficits and the trashing of the KORUS as a “bad deal.”
That said, the President was essentially correct in his assessment of North Korea. He checked important reassurance boxes, kept on the broad script of the strategy outlined by Mattis and Tillerson (See here and here), and largely avoided the more inflammatory statements that have characterized his tweets. The result was a convergence of the US and South Korean governments that was positive, particularly given anticipated risks.
What did Trump say? The Korean peninsula is about as close to a natural experiment as you can get: divided at birth, the two halves went in diametrically opposite directions. This divergence provided the arc of the National Assembly speech, noting the progress in the South and the outlier political system in the North. Among the defter touches were references to culture, including the fact that Korean authors have published no fewer than 40,000 books this year. Some North Korea watchers bridle at the Orientalism of writing on the country, particularly those that emphasize the bizarre. And Trump’s stylized history was arguably cliched. But honestly: does anyone who studies North Korea not believe the bulk of what the President had to say about the fates of the two countries and particularly the Kim regime’s excesses? No one expected a human rights speech, but that is exactly what they got.
“Here, the strength of the nation does not come from the false glory of a tyrant. It comes from the true and powerful glory of a strong and great people — the people of the Republic of Korea — a Korean people who are free to live, to flourish, to worship, to love, to build, and to grow their own destiny.”
-President Donald Trump, Speech before the National Assembly, Seoul Nov. 8
If you remain skeptical, we will provide just three reference points, starting with the claim that North Korea is a cult. Sound extreme? Think again. Below, we reproduce the Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-Ideology System that effectively codified the leaderist nature of the regime in the late Kim Il-sung period. Think such extreme centralization is dead? The cult of personality is clearly alive and well. And for those more institutionally inclined, Robert Collins has published a short, punchy take on all of the positions that Kim Jong-un actually holds. In Book IV, Chapter 4 of The City of God, Augustine asks the enduring question of how kingdoms differ, exactly, from bands of robbers. If there were ever a political system that poses the question, North Korea is it.
Second, the human rights record. Since our initial interest in the famine, we have consistently sought to spotlight the human rights record of the regime. First, it should be noted that the President’s litany was in fact no different than that offered up by the Commission of Inquiry report, which we covered in close detail (If you search the blog homepage for “Commission of Inquiry” you’ll find a lot); the commission’s mandate is also reproduced below just in case you think the president was exaggerating.
And finally, we can do no better than to refer you to the exemplary work of the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea which has offered extensive documentation—built on refugee testimony, surveys, satellite imagery and other primary sources—on: freedom of religion, the police state, the prison system, the songbun or caste system, torture, gender and trafficking, deprivation of food, etc.
That said, it is a legitimate question about whether this approach of going directly at the regime is useful or not. We suspect that we are in for a rocky road of North Korean responses because of the direct attack on the leader and the system; others think it probably doesn’t matter one way or the other. But it is worth underlining where the president did stay on script. The speech itself did not offer much detail on a way forward and in fact the phrasing of the offer of an offramp was both threatening and narrow (“yet, despite every crime you have committed against God and man…we will offer a path to a much better future. It begins with an end to the aggression of your regime, a stop to your development of ballistic missiles, and complete, verifiable, and total denuclearization.”) In the press conference, however, President Trump coupled some standard deterrence signaling with further references to talks, and even the surprising claim that he observed progress on that front. He was uncharacteristically generous with respect to China’s efforts. Indeed, if anything it appeared that President Moon struck the tougher line, suggesting for example that any discussion of a peace regime was premature until progress had been made on denuclearization.
Trump is a polarizing figure and in some quarters there is now a well-developed instinct to reflexively oppose anything Trump proposes. But this is a case in which while we can quibble on details, or phraseology, or emphasis, Trump essentially got it right. Thoughtless opposition or ridicule can morph into defense of Kim Jong-un, and that is a position in which no one should want to be.
Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-Ideology System (1974)
1. We must give our all in the struggle to unify the entire society with the revolutionary ideology of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung.
2. We must honor the Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung with all our loyalty.
3. We must make absolute the authority of the Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung.
4. We must make the Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung? revolutionary ideology our faith and make his instructions our creed.
5. We must adhere strictly to the principle of unconditional obedience in carrying out the Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung's instructions.
6. We must strengthen the entire partys ideology and willpower and revolutionary unity, centering on the Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung.
7. We must learn from the Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung and adopt the communist look, revolutionary work methods and people-oriented work style.
8. We must value the political life we were given by the Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung, and loyally repay his great political trust and thoughtfulness with heightened political awareness and skill.
9. We must establish strong organizational regulations so that the entire party, nation and military move as one under the one and only leadership of the Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung.
10.We must pass down the great achievement of the revolution by the Great Leader comrade Kim Il Sung from generation to generation, inheriting and completing it to the end.
The Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
The Commission of Inquiry is mandated to look into “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights” in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, in particular:
- Violations of the right to food,
- Violations associated with prison camps,
- Torture and inhuman treatment,
- Arbitrary detention,
- Violations of freedom of expression,
- Violations of the right to life,
- Violations of freedom of movement, and
- Enforced disappearances, including in the form of abductions of nationals of other States