Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News

As US President Donald Trump meets Kim Jong-un in Singapore, the focus is rightly on nuclear weapons. But let’s not forget something else: North Korea is by far the most totalitarian country in the world.

Trump should make clear to Kim that what makes a nation “modern” is not just McDonald’s franchises, but also an end to torture and a measure of freedom.

A United Nations report on North Korea in 2014 described “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” and added that in this respect North Korea “does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

North Koreans have told me how police periodically turn off all the power in an apartment building, thus locking any video or DVD inside the machine playing it. Then police search unit by unit to see what is in the machines — and if it is, say, a South Korean soap opera, then the entire family may be shuttled off to a labour camp. No other country has managed to use technology, propaganda and the police to control a people so tightly.

On my visits to North Korea beginning in 1989, I’ve been flabbergasted that each home had The Loudspeaker on a wall (in the villages I visited, The Loudspeaker was mounted on poles and shared by several homes). The Loudspeakers issued constant propaganda along the lines of:

“On his first golf outing, the supreme leader shot five holes in one, not long after scoring a perfect 300 his first time bowling! The brigandish American war-maniacs are committing ever increasing crimes with their despicable flunkeyist puppet traitors in South Korea. A magical white sea cucumber threw itself into a fisherman’s net to celebrate the wise rule of the Workers’ Party.”

When North Korea was suffering from famine in the 1990s, the state broadcaster hailed the benefits of dieting, and a national slogan became “Let’s Eat Just Two Meals a Day!” A television documentary reported on a man who ate too much rice — and exploded.

Radios and televisions can tune only to North Korean stations. On the black market, technicians can be found who will tinker with the devices so that they can receive South Korean or Chinese stations, but possession can get one’s family sent to a labour camp. Some 100,000 people are said to live in these prisons.

“In my opinion, conditions in North Korean labour camps are as severe and brutal as the Nazi camps were,” said Thomas Buergenthal, who served on an International Bar Association panel investigating North Korean prisons and is himself a survivor of Auschwitz.

Kidnapped Japanese citizens

My own view is that the priority for now should be the nuclear weapons issue and that we shouldn’t make improvements in human rights a condition of those talks for fear of causing them to collapse. But I also believe that Trump can and should explain to Kim that his regime will never be fully respected unless it improves on human rights and accounts for Japanese citizens kidnapped over the years.

Robert Gallucci, who negotiated the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, acknowledged that nuclear weapons are the core issue for now but added, “Eventually, for normalisation to work, you’re going to have to deal with the human rights issue.”

Likewise, Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group said he didn’t want to make nuclear negotiations any more complicated by adding human rights conditions. But he also said, “If North Korea’s goal is, as it might well be, to end US sanctions and normalise bilateral relations, then they should know that won’t happen as long as the regime treats its citizens as it does now.” Over the years, I’ve had many hours of discussions with North Korean officials about human rights. North Korean officials are indeed sometimes willing to discuss human rights if they don’t feel they’re being hectored or condescended to and they feel they are being listened to.

North Koreans have also become more willing to tackle these issues over time. On my first visit, officials denied that there were any prisons or labour camps. Now they acknowledge them but insist that Western reports about North Korean abuses are vastly unfair and exaggerated.

For example, triplets are regarded as auspicious in North Korea and so are given to the state to raise. To me, this is coercive. Government officials say that I misunderstand and that parents feel honoured to have their triplets nurtured by the state. OK, let’s have that conversation.

One good sign: Although North Korea in the past had been criticised for mistreating people with disabilities, last year it allowed a UN special rapporteur to visit and discuss the issue.

Trump could encourage Kim to accept Red Cross visits to labour camps, or to release family members of those convicted (right now, the whole family is often sent to a camp). These are difficult issues and we don’t want to make the nuclear negotiations harder, but let’s never forget that North Korea is not just another nuclear state — and that what’s at stake is not just warheads, but also human lives.

— New York Times News Service

Nicholas Kristof is an American journalist, author and a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes.