A Saudi Arabia in Northeast Asia?
The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Which of the following countries does U.S. President Donald Trump like the most: Japan, South Korea, North Korea or Saudi Arabia?
Washington’s answer is quite simple. In a speech during the presidential campaign in August 2015, Trump said: “I get along great with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much!”
After inauguration, Trump chose Saudi Arabia for his first visit overseas. Saudi Arabia showered him with a $110 billion gift of arms purchases. Trump was head over heels. He did not mention the human rights issue in Saudi that former U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama, had addressed.
In August, the United States surprised the world with shocking responses. When Saudi Arabia arrested 15 human rights activists, Canada represented the international community and condemned the action. Saudi Arabia retaliated by freezing trade with Canada and shutting air routes. During a U.S. State Department briefing, an American reporter asked why the United States was remaining silent. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said it was up to Canada and Saudi Arabia to resolve the differences. “We can’t do it for them,” said she. Relations with the oil producer, which spends $273 million in lobbying efforts in the United States, was prioritized above human rights. Trump’s negligence led to Saudi Arabia’s indulgence.
Jamal Khashoggi’s death is the result.
Saudi first claimed that Khashoggi left the consulate in Istanbul, but later admitted that he died while engaged in a fight in the office. While it argued that the death had nothing to do with the Saudi royal family, it was revealed that officials in the consulate spoke with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by phone four times while Khashoggi was in the facility. It was also disclosed that a “body double” in Khashoggi’s clothing was seen leaving the Consulate. Nevertheless, Trump said he found Saudi’s explanation “credible.”
The repercussions could turn to North Korea. In Washington, voices are growing that neglecting North Korean human rights would make it another Saudi Arabia. Just as Saudi Arabia has been spoiled by oil money, not paying attention to North Korea’s human rights due to nuclear program negotiations could turn North Korea into an equivalent of Saudi Arabia in Northeast Asia. Human rights infringement in a country — where an uncle was executed with automatic rifles, a step-brother was killed with poison at an international airport and 80,000 to 120,000 people are in concentration camps, according to a U.S. State Department report — must not be less severe than in Saudi Arabia.
With the Khashoggi case, Trump needs to show that he is not a president who neglects human rights. He is being pushed into a situation where he would — or needs to — address the human rights issue in the nuclear negotiations with North Korea — especially if the Democratic Party dominates the House in the mid-term election.
In a recent interview with the BBC, President Moon was asked if he had felt uncomfortable to hold hands and embrace the leader of a country where human rights were oppressed, as he himself had been a human rights lawyer. Moon responded that it was a priority to make North Korea a normal state through cooperation as international pressure doesn’t improve human rights instantly.
How convincing was this? The Saudi case shows the world that there would be no improvement in human rights without pressure, and no normal state without improved human rights. Can North Korea be an exception?
We feel threatened by North Korea not just because of its possession of nuclear weapons, but because a regime that violates human rights has nuclear weapons. We should not forget it. Saudi Arabia shows the reason why the human rights issue should not lose priority in nuclear negotiations.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 24, Page 30