Human rights advocates and foreign policy experts condemned President Trump’s comment Monday that he’d be “honored” to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un – saying it undermines international efforts to isolate one of the world’s most brutal dictators.
In an interview with Bloomberg News on Monday, Trump said that – in trying to reduce tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program – he’d meet with Kim under certain circumstances.
“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it,” Trump said. “If it’s under the, again, under the right circumstances. But I would do that.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer later tried to walk back Trump’s comments by stating the circumstances were not right at the moment. But rights advocates lashed out at Trump’s suggestion, which came a day after he praised Kim’s leadership ability and invited Philippines strongman Rodrigo Duterte to visit the White House.
“Praising murderers and dictators is unprincipled and will fail to change their behavior, at least the way Trump imagines,” said Brad Adams, Asia division director for Human Rights Watch. “Dictators are not going to respond to praise either by changing their foreign policy or the way they govern.”
Trump has been all over the map on North Korea in recent days. On Friday, he told Reuters, “There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea.” By Sunday, he was speaking almost with admiration for Kim and his consolidation of power.
“At a very young age, he (Kim) was able to assume power,” Trump said while being interviewed by CBS’s “Face The Nation.” “A lot of people, I’m sure, tried to take that power away, whether it was his uncle or anybody else. And he was able to do it. So, obviously, he’s a pretty smart cookie.”
During Monday’s White House briefing, Sean Spicer was asked why Trump called it an “honor” to meet with a dictator that has threatened to destroy the United States.
“I guess because he’s still a head of state,” Spicer responded. “So it is sort of – there is a diplomatic piece to this. But the bottom line is the president is going to do what he has to do. Right now he’s building a coalition in the region to isolate North Korea both economically and diplomatically to get the threat – to take that threat down.”
North Korea is known to be one of the world’s worst human rights violators, holding an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners in large prison camps, according to a 2014 report by a United Nations commission of inquiry. Summary executions are common, sometimes aimed at Kim’s suspected rivals. In 2013, Kim executed his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, the same uncle Trump referenced in his comments to CBS.
In terms of documented abuses, Duterte of the Philippines has not received the same scrutiny as Kim. But there is mounting evidence he is responsible for unleashing extrajudicial “death squads” against suspected drug dealers and their families.
Analysts say Trump has shown little regard toward abuses committed by many of the foreign leaders he admires, from Duterte to China’s Xi Jinping to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
“He seems very comfortable engaging with leaders that, let’s say, leave a bit to be desired,” said Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Trump seems an affinity for those who are divisive . . . leaders who don’t engage in civilities of international discourse.”
Based on his presidential campaign, few expected Trump to be a champion of international civil society, but his record to date has been surprisingly poor, said Adams.
Along with reaching out to Duterte, the president has also invited Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha – a former general who took power power in a 2014 coup – to the White House. Trump has also warmed up to Chinese President Xi, despite his crackdown on lawyers, right activists and religious leaders.
“We assumed there would be professionals around Trump, and that they would understand the countries and issues,” said Adams. “But he seems to be advised by empty offices. Either he is not getting properly briefed or he is ignoring them the briefings.”
On North Korea, Trump may be purposely trying to keep Kim Jong Un off-balance with his wavering rhetoric, or “at least that is what he thinks he is doing,” said Pollack. But Trump’s ad-libbing has left many U.S. allies confused, including countries that are part of the coalition he wants to build to counter North Korea.
South Korean leaders, in particular, are bewildered by Trump’s recent comment that Seoul may need to pay for a $1 billion missile-defense system – known as THAAD – that the U.S. military is installing in South Korea.
The comment prompted White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster to quickly contact his counterparts in Seoul and assure them the United States would shoulder the costs. South Korean newspapers blasted the president, with one running a headline that read: “Trump’s mouth rattling Korea-US alliance.”
Pollack said the White House will be unable to build a coalition to deter North Korea if it can’t demonstrate a clear and unwavering strategy. “They have to get some consistency with their messaging,” he said.