Trump keeps wild card over Pyongyang's human rights abuses up his sleeve
The goals and gripes for the upcoming Singapore summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are on display along a busy boulevard within shouting distance of the American Embassy in Seoul.
On one patch of pavement, a knot of protesters chants for the drawdown of American forces in South Korea. Nearby, a lone woman holds a placard denouncing South Korea's president for appeasing Kim's regime.
Down the street, another group demands that Trump remembers North Korea's staggering record of human rights abuses and atrocities when he meets Kim next Tuesday.
Here rests one of the biggest wild cards in an encounter full of unpredictable outcomes. Depending on whom you ask, pressing Kim over the North's decades of repression is either a political and moral imperative or a potential deal-breaker that could threaten the bigger aim of ending Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme.
To further complicate Trump's possible agenda over human rights, there is evidence supporting both views.
Trump is certain to face international blowback if he ignores the enormity of the state-sponsored cruelties perpetrated by the Kim family dynasty: political prison gulags, torture, summary executions and show trials, according to accounts from defectors, clandestine activists and investigators.
A United Nations report in 2014 said the practices "may amount to crimes against humanity", and legal rights groups and others continue to press for Kim's indictment by the International Criminal Court.
But other voices, including a top former South Korean nuclear negotiator, worry that raising human rights too soon and too directly could enrage Kim and derail any possible progress toward nuclear concessions.
South Korea's president, Moon Jae-in, has carefully sidestepped rights issues in his two meetings with Kim, sending an apparent signal that the South prefers to cultivate the unprecedented outreach rather than risk having it unravel.
The North has driven home this point often. In late April - when the Kim-Trump summit was still unclear but parallel Korea talks were picking up - state media outlets warned that any criticism of the country's human rights situation could "pour cold water" on plans for the leaders to meet.
"There is a long tradition of making US policies conditional on human rights," said Joanna Hosaniak, deputy director general of the Seoul-based Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.
"It would be difficult, and quite surprising, if Trump reversed these policies and made this just about trying to win something on the nuclear side."
Trump, in his signature style, has left everyone guessing. At times, he has hammered Kim's regime for its rogue-state status on rights. For example, he called the North "a hell that no person deserves" in a speech to South Korean MPs in November.
However, last week in Washington, Trump said he avoided any mention of rights issues while meeting with Kim's personal envoy, Kim Yong Chol.
Trump later told reporters that the North's rights record "could" be raised in Singapore and "maybe in great detail". The White House has not clarified its plans.
That leaves Trump's allies trying to keep human rights front and centre.
Senator Marco Rubio warned of serious fallout if the Trump administration failed to hold Kim accountable "for being one of the world's worst human rights abusers".
In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made clear he wants Trump to bring up North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens.
Pyongyang has admitted to kidnapping 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train as spies and sending five back to Japan. Japan suspects that hundreds more may have been taken captive.
What countries such as Japan have on their side is money. Any progress in the Singapore talks will further stoke the appetites of businesses in the region to join a possible rush to invest.
South Korea's benchmark Kospi stock index has already been nudged higher on such hopes. But nothing can get under way without a rollback of UN economic sanctions on North Korea and other measures, such as Treasury Department blocks against dozens of North Korean business, vessels and high-level figures believed to be linked to the North's missile and nuclear weapons programmes.
Trump gushed with praise for Kim last month after the release of three Americans. One of the freed men, Kim Dong Chul, said he was forced to do labour while imprisoned. Vice President Mike Pence said another detainee apparently rarely saw daylight.
Someone who has already engaged in high-stakes nuclear negotiations with North Korea believes that raising human rights would be a major miscalculation by Trump.
Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean national security adviser, said North Korea viewed pressure over human rights as part of wider "hostile US policies" aiming at bringing down the regime.
Even raising the issue directly with Kim could send the entire talks into a tailspin, warned Chun, who took part in six-nation nuclear talks with North Korea that began in 2003 and collapsed six years later.
"You have to be careful not to push too hard," he said. "The nuclear issue is already difficult enough, and it will be a miracle if the North dismantles its nuclear programme.
"The wheels of the nuclear talks will break down under the weight of talking about human rights."
© The Washington Post