WARM hugs, backslapping laughter, and overt signs of unity characterised the three-day summit between North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and the South’s President Moon Jae-in last week.
The third inter-Korean summit in less than a year had all the hallmarks of old friends reuniting rather than the meeting of two longstanding political foes. Onlookers gushed as the two scaled the sacred Mount Paektu and busted out finger-hearts any self-respecting K-Pop star would be proud of.
But it seems somewhere between the noodle-eating and hand-holding, the world forgot the true nature of the cherubic face grinning from behind his red wine glass.
North Korea’s Supreme Leader has had somewhat of a character-facelift over the last 12 months.
His flurry into diplomacy has seen him transform from a megalomaniacal madman gleefully ready to nuke downtown LA, to a “very, very smart” and “strong guy” with a “very good personality” – and that’s coming from a typically harsh critic, the US president.
It was this “funny,” good guy who greeted the waiting international press in Pyongyang last week. And they ate it up.
Through his interactions with US President Donald Trump – from trading insults to negotiating tactics – rather than appear a despotic monster, Kim has often assumed the role as the more reasonable – and often smartest – man in the room.
But this is a distraction. We must remember that the horror of his human rights abuses cannot be overstated.
North Korea is considered one of – if not, the – most repressive states in the world. The government exercises complete control, restricting all civil and political liberties for its citizens.
Not even the premise of freedom of expression, independent media, or political opposition is entertained. If a person dares express opposition, they run the risk of arbitrary arrest and detention in one of the regime’s notorious gulags.
There they are subjected to hard labour and torture that routinely results in the inmate’s death.
Reports from the United Nations and the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, along with first hand accounts from former guards, have uncovered the horror that goes on in these secretive institutions.
Kim Jong Un's take at finger heart – a popular social media pose among young South Koreans pic.twitter.com/0GbzWTCU0Z
— Min Joo Kim (@Min_Joo_Kim_) September 23, 2018
One guard told of inmates forced to dig their own graves, then made to stand on the edge before being executed with a hammer blow to the back of the head.
Pregnant women are subjected to forced abortions, often through intense labour to induce an end to the pregnancy. Alternatively, motor oil is injected into a woman’s womb, or they are physically assaulted by guards or fellow-prisoners with guns to their heads.
One North Korean defector told the International Bar Association War Crimes Committee he had seen a prisoner’s newborn baby fed to guard dogs.
Inmates are used as punchbags by the guards, who boast about the sadistic torture and execution methods they use. Starvation is an accepted part of the detention, with prisoners forced to eat snakes and rats to stay alive.
Detainees at such camps include high-ranking politicians who have displeased Kim. They are brought to the gulags along with family members to deter anyone else who dares cross the Supreme Leader.
To summarise, the Kim regime is guilty of murder, extermination, enslavement, forcible transfer, imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, persecution, enforced disappearances and other inhumane acts — pretty much covering all bases for recognised crimes against humanity.
It is difficult to marry these facts with the man we now see greeting world leaders with only peace and prosperity on his mind.
But not everyone is falling for Kim’s sudden change of heart. Many South Koreans are understandably reluctant and need a little more evidence before they buy into this newly softened persona.
One Seoul-based South Korean journalist told me many people didn’t feel it was appropriate to be “hugging and having a close relationship with a dictator” – especially one they openly tease as “a pig” and someone who killed his half-brother.
Now, please enjoy this breezy S. Korean government montage of Moon and Kim's fast-blossoming friendship. pic.twitter.com/vwSmvW91z1
— Jonathan Cheng (@JChengWSJ) September 18, 2018
That hasn’t stopped the South Korean government from giving the new relationship the hard-sell, launching a campaign – complete with cartoon depictions of the murderous despot – to highlight Moon’s close ties with Kim.
It may even be working as South Koreans are coming around to communication with their neighbours to the North. A July poll from the Asan Institute found South Koreans see Kim as more “likeable” than both China’s Xi Jinping and Japan’s Shinzo Abe.
The argument goes that to improve the security concerns on the Korean peninsula – and the wider world – lines of communication need to be opened between the two sides. The complete disregard for human rights will be worth it if peace can eventually be secured.
But surely there has to be some middle ground.
Kim must be lapping up all this positive coverage. The man has dedicated his reign to developing nuclear weapons, suppressing his own people and threatening all-out war on anyone who crosses him, only to thrust himself on the world stage with minimal rebuke.
He has cunningly given up nothing of any material value to him and his regime. And yet, a few well-executed back slaps and some empty promises have the President of the United States singing his praises.
Until Kim makes concessions on denuclearisation, the sanctions will stay in place, but who will spare a thought for the citizens of North Korea who have no voice of their own.
You can only hope the South Korean and US delegations have not been completely duped and their sycophantic approach does not continue behind closed doors.
If not, it could only be a matter of years before we see the man who feeds newborns to dogs presenting medals at the Olympics.