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Rights Concerns Shouldn't Be Sidelined at Trump-Kim Summit, Activists Warn

President Donald Trump boards Air Force One for a trip to Singapore to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un,, June 9, 2018, at Canadian Forces Base Bagotville, in Saguenay, Quebec.

Kim Jong Un presides over a totalitarian government widely known as one of the world's worst human rights abusers.

But as the young North Korean leader basks in the international spotlight ahead of his unprecedented meeting Tuesday with U.S. President Donald Trump, there has been very little discussion about human rights.

In the weeks leading up to the summit in Singapore, Trump praised Kim as "very honorable" and "very open," a stark contrast from the "Little Rocket Man" moniker Trump had bestowed on him in previous months.

It's unclear what role human rights will play in the Trump-Kim meeting. Before leaving for Singapore, Trump was asked whether he will bring up the issue of North Korea's notorious prison camps.

"We are going to raise every issue. Every issue will be raised," Trump said. But earlier this month, Trump said he didn't raise the issue of human rights during his White House meeting with Kim's top aide, Kim Yong-chol.

U.S. diplomats are believed to be focusing primarily on a deal to eventually dismantle North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But many activists say nuclear concerns shouldn't come at the cost of ignoring human rights.

"We're talking here about one of the most repressive governments in the world, which the U.N. has found culpable in committing crimes against humanity against its own people -- so pushing human rights off the summit table is neither responsible nor ethical," says Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

Robertson says the human rights and nuclear issues are inextricably linked.

"People shouldn't forget that North Korea's nuclear and missile technology was built on the backs of the North Korean people, through pervasive forced labor on infrastructure projects and taking food out of their mouths by diverting scarce resources to expensive weapons programs," says Robertson.

Trump has suggested that U.S.-North Korean relations could improve if the Singapore summit goes well. He has even raised the possibility of a White House meeting with Kim. But that kind of engagement risks providing Kim the international legitimacy he has long desired, warns Olivia Enos, an Asia policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

"We have to remember who we're dealing with here – Kim Jong Un is frankly an evil guy," says Enos. "I don't think you could say the summit would be a complete success if other issues, including human rights issues, were not also raised."

Enos, who like HRW's Robertson traveled to Singapore to speak with international media about North Korea's human rights abuses, says it will likely be necessary to take a phased approach to improve North Korean human rights.

The first step, she suggests, could require Kim to allow international humanitarian organizations, such as the Red Cross, access to North Korea's most vulnerable populations, such as those in prison camps. A second step could be the release of detained children and families.

"U.S. negotiators and President Trump himself need to make clear that he (Kim) cannot be viewed as a respectable leader when he continues to abuse his people," Enos says.