There is a battle taking place at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and it is not about sports. The United States and North Korea are locked in a struggle over who controls the narrative on human rights abuses in the reclusive regime, for which neither will win, but many will lose.
In the runup to the Olympics, President Trump featured Ji Seong ho, a North Korean defector, at his first State of the Union speech in January. The president described how Mr. Ji managed to escape North Korea on a pair of wooden crutches, which Mr. Ji held triumphantly over his head to a standing ovation in the Capitol chamber. His “story is a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom,” the president said, framing the moment for some watching as a memorable tribute to the cause of human rights in North Korea.
A little over one week later, Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of mercurial North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, stepped off a private jet and onto the tarmac at a South Korean airport to what could only be described as a rock star’s welcome. Paparazzi captured the first visit by a member of the Kim Jong-un clan to the South with excruciating details of every feature of this photogenic woman, dubbing the 30-something-year-old a “young princess,” who appeared to disarm an entire nation with her ingratiating “Mona Lisa” smile. After watching the Olympics opening ceremony, she penned a note in the guest book at the South Korean president’s residence that read, “I hope Pyongyang and Seoul will become closer in the hearts of Koreans and will bring unification and prosperity in the near future.”
Both actions might be naively viewed as gold medal-winning celebrations of the human spirit; however, they are callous and calculated efforts to capture the human rights narrative of this Olympic moment. Mr. Trump’s celebration of Mr. Ji at the State of the Union speech and his vice-president’s steady drumbeat of human rights condemnations of the North during his short stay at the Olympics were nothing more than an effort to block the North from successfully lightening the global image of the rogue regime at the games. Indeed, this was the first mention of the human rights issue for Mr. Trump. During his first year in office, the president made no reference to human rights abuses in the North, and he has not pressed for human rights sanctions to be part of the “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against the regime’s nuclear weapons. Indeed, he has not sought renewal of the single most important piece of U.S. legislation on the issue, the North Korean Human Rights Act, which had been renewed by both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And his policies on immigration would actually block refugees like Mr. Ji from seeking freedom in the U.S.
And as enraptured as the media may be with Little Sister Kim and her calls for reconciliation of the two Korean peoples, the reality is that she represents neither an emissary of peace nor the hearts of the North Korean people. She is an accomplice to the most brutal family dictatorship in modern history that filled its own coffers with luxury goods while it allowed over 2 million people or 10 percent of its population to die of famine in the mid-1990s. The regime undeniably feels the pressure of the global sanctions campaign over their nuclear program, and perhaps also fears that the unpredictable Mr. Trump may consider a limited strike on the country after the Olympics. So, they put the young lady forward armed with smiles and an invitation for the South Korean president to visit Pyongyang in hopes of gaining Seoul as an ally in fending off U.S. pressure.
The sight of a united Korean hockey team playing together at the Olympics is a testament to how countries can put aside differences to come together for sport. And if, as Vice President Pence suggested, the U.S. and DPRK engage in talks that advance peace on the peninsula as a result of these games, then the world would be better off. But we should not be fooled into believing there is a human rights cause being advanced at these games. Mr. Ji was a teenager hit by a moving train as he scrounged for food during the great famine more than two decades ago. His arm and leg were amputated without anesthesia, but he still managed to escape to freedom. Donald Trump never paid attention to or cared about this act of courage before last month. And Kim Yo-jong’s appearances at the Olympics are designed to make everyone forget about Mr. Ji’s courageous story and those of many others. The real loser at these Olympics is the human rights cause and the people of North Korea.
Andrew Elliott Cha (email@example.com) is president and founder of Serv4all, an NGO dedicated to social justice and human rights.