In a video that went viral in October 2014, Yeonmi Park gave an emotional speech about her escape from North Korea. She recounts how she was nine years old when she witnessed the public execution of her friend’s mother, thirteen when she saw her mother raped as the price for escaping the country, and fourteen when she had to bury her father secretly in China.
She also recounts how she walked across the Gobi Desert to find freedom because she and her remaining family “wanted to live as humans.” “When I was crossing the Gobi Desert,” she recalls, “scared of dying, I thought that nobody in this world cared, except only the stars were with me. But you have listened to my story, you have cared.”
Sadly, after the summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, Park and others still hoping to escape tyranny in North Korea now have more reason to think that no one cares about their plight, and that only the stars are with them. Park has protested. Watch the video she released recently in response to that fateful meeting between the leader of the free world and the North Korean dictator:
Pointedly, she asks if South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, who met with and embraced Kim in April, would have done the same with Hitler. She despairs that the world is now cheering President Trump for meeting “one of the most brutal dictators ever” who leads the regime with “the worst human rights record on earth.” Trump, she says, should not sit down with a brutal dictator who imprisons and starves his own people, orders the assassination of members of his own family, and who will only use the meeting as a propaganda victory.
When I saw this video, I could not help thinking of another refugee from communism who decades ago saw the leader of the free world sitting down with a dictator. She condemned it because she knew that treating a tyrant with an undeserved legitimacy sends a demoralizing message to his victims. The parallel with the Trump-Kim summit is exact.
In 1973, Ayn Rand—a refugee from the Soviet Union—wrote a series of articles about Richard Nixon’s unprecedented visit to China to meet with Chairman Mao. Rand begins by observing that since the US wrongly deals with communist Russia, there is no reason not to deal with communist China, and that a real statesman might be able to play one aggressor off the other. Even so, Rand thought this second-best policy was only for a geopolitical giant with full moral clarity. Nixon, she thought, was not that person.
Nixon’s overture to Mao treated that dictator as if he were a civilized diplomatic partner, not the murderer of 45 million people that he really was. Rand wrote:
Morally, it was impossible to watch all those gracious ceremonies, benevolent smiles, lengthy handshakes, cordial speeches—and hold in mind the actual nature of Red China. One kept alternating between two feelings: the kind of unreality and childish amusement one feels at a circus—and the shock of returning to reality, the reality of China’s terror, starvation, torture chambers, mass slaughter. I kept thinking of the thousands of men who try to escape from China by swimming many miles, under the gunfire of patrol boats, to reach freedom in Hong Kong. What about them?—I kept thinking, whenever somebody uttered one of those ringing speeches about universal peace and love for mankind—isn’t there anyone to defend them? The shock came from the realization that the smiling figure in the midst of the ghastly pretense on the TV screen was the President of the United States. . . .
It is America that all the enslaved peoples of the world look up to as the symbol of freedom and as their last hope. For the Chinese to see an American President drinking toasts to their jailers is so cruel a blow that, in the name of humanity, no one should ever permit himself to deliver it. . . .1
Every word of this applies to Trump’s meeting with Kim. This time the president has not only shaken hands with the dictator but has gone further by calling him “very talented” and a “funny guy” with a “great personality” who “loves his people.” Asked whether it was wise to sit down with a killer, the most Trump could bring himself to disparage about Kim was to say “it is a rough situation over there.” Asked how Kim could love his people and oppress them, Trump said “he’s doing what he’s seen done.”
Imagine what a cruel blow that must be to Kim’s starved, brutalized, enslaved people—all the more so, because these words came from the leader of the free world. What about them? Is there anyone to defend them?
Some might argue that Trump’s reticence and flattery were merely part of his diplomatic cunning. But a real statesman would realize that we have nothing to gain from North Korea. If he wanted them to stop threatening us and our allies, he would realize that the threat they pose is itself entirely fueled by decades of material and moral concessions of the type Trump has now delivered in bulk.
Park closes her recent video with the following: “To the American public: You have the power to tell your president he needs to fight for human rights in North Korea. Use it.” She’s right. But the more important message we need to send to the president is that by ignoring the victims of a dictator in an effort to curry favor with him, we embolden him to find still further victims.