SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - North Korean defectors are voicing concern the repression and long-standing human rights violations allegedly committed by the leadership in Pyongyang will be forgotten during the nuclear summits expected to be held soon.
North and South Korea agreed Thursday to hold the inter-Korean summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27.
The announcement was made during a high-level planning session on the northern side of the border in the Panmunjom truce village, where the armistice to end the Korean War was signed. This will be the third meeting of the leaders from the communist North and the democratic South. The last one was in 2007.
U.S. President Donald Trump also agreed to meet with Kim sometime in May. The meeting would be the first U.S.-North Korea summit.
Ending North Korea’s threatening nuclear and missile programs will a main focus of both summits.
Kim this week confirmed his commitment to engage in denuclearization talks during his surprise visit to Beijing, where he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. What likely won’t be on the agenda is the widespread repression the authoritarian state tries to keep hidden from the world.
In Seoul, human rights activists recently staged a small demonstration in front of the presidential Blue House to demand the inter-Korean summit in late April also address the atrocities committed by the authoritarian government in Pyongyang.
“The third summit on denuclearization that will decide the destiny of this Korean Peninsula, cannot be done while disregarding the human rights of North Koreans,” said Kim Tae-Hoon with the group Lawyers for Human Rights and Unification of Korea.
The United Nations in 2014 documented a network of secret political prisons in North Korea and cases of state-sanctioned torture, rape and murder. Efforts in the U.N. Security Council to refer the leadership in Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity have stalled as China, North Korea’s closest ally, would likely veto the measure.
The inhumane treatment and death earlier this year of American student Otto Warmbier was a shocking reminder of the brutal nature of the Kim government.
Warmbier was arrested in early 2016 for tearing down a poster while visiting Pyongyang with a tour group. A few months into serving a 15-year sentence of hard labor, he fell into a coma and was kept for nearly a year in prison without proper care. He died in June 2017 soon after being released in a comatose state.
In North Korea, trying to access information from the outside world is a crime, and anyone caught trying to escape across the border is arrested and sent to prison, or worse.
In November security cameras in the demilitarized zone recorded the North Korean military shooting one of its own soldiers, as he defected across the heavily guarded border with the South.
Advocates for reforming North Korea through policies of engagement do not dispute the dire conditions in the North. But Moon Chung-in, a special adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in for national security affairs, argues that focusing now on North Korean rights violations would undermine the chances of getting a nuclear deal.
“If you put human rights and democracy issues together with the nuclear issues, then North Korea will regard this as a hostile act by the United States and they will never make concessions on the nuclear issue,” said Moon at a conference in March organized by The National Committee on North Korea in Washington.
It is an argument that frustrates many defectors and human rights advocates.
“I think it is heartbreaking since it is disregarding the pain of the North Koreans,” said Lee Han-byeol, a North Korean defector and activist with the Improving North Korean Human Rights Center.
Jung Kwang-il, who was among a group of North Korean defectors that met earlier this year with Trump in the White House, was initially encouraged by the attention the president paid to the ongoing atrocities in North Korea.
“He said that he was aware that North Korean human rights are in bad condition, but he did not know it was this bad,” said Jung, who spent three years in a North Korean prison for contacting a South Korean, and is now a human rights activist with a group called No Chain.
But with no follow-up coming from the White House, Jung now worries the United States also seems willing to put aside human rights to get a nuclear deal.
Hyung Jin Kim and Lee Yoon-jee in Seoul contributed to this report.