In 2015, I voted against the Iran nuclear agreement because I disagreed with the strategy of decoupling Iran's nuclear threat from its other malign activities.
President Obama had painstakingly negotiated a credible deal, but I believed that denuclearization of Iran could never truly be achievable without also addressing its gross human rights violations and regionally destabilizing behavior. In my view, transparency on issues such as support for terrorism and detention of dissidents serves as a bellwether for a dictatorship's readiness to disarm peacefully.
Today, President Trump claims "there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea," but he has accomplished little more than a pinkie-swear with Kim Jung Un. In fact, he downplayed Kim's human rights atrocities during the Singapore summit and referred to the North Korean leader as "smart" and beloved by his people.
There is compelling evidence that the Kim regime runs political prison camps and commits torture, abductions, and forced abortion, among other crimes. As many as 120,000 people are likely detained, living under what can only be described as torturous conditions.
Transparency on human rights, coupled with clear details on verification, must be part of any negotiation. Dan Blumenthal, the Asia Director at the American Enterprise Institutes, recently wrote that "the full transparency that denuclearization would demand could also lay bare the Kim family's many crimes – slave-labor camps and mass murder among them." The reverse is also true – forcing the Kim regime to lift the veil over his family's crimes and ongoing repression in North Korea would indicate its readiness to be transparent on its denuclearization.
As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I plan on doing everything in my ability to make sure human rights remains a priority in our negotiations with North Korea. That is why I, along with Republican Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, introduced legislation to prohibit the lifting of economic sanctions on North Korea without certification that it is improving its atrocious human rights record. Our legislation aims to strengthen the hand of American diplomats by allowing – and requiring – them to raise human rights issues during negotiations. America is stronger when we speak with our values, especially when dealing with an authoritarian regime like that of North Korea.
Human rights must always be a core tenet of American foreign policy. That's why the way in which we negotiate with regimes like North Korea – and not simply the outcome of those negotiations – ought to be of concern to the American people. We must be steadfast and consistent in the principles that truly make America great.
We are at the beginning of a negotiation, and any President deserves some space to reach a deal. But President Trump's impulsiveness and apparent willingness to ignore human rights issues demands that Congress play a strong oversight role. We must not allow him to compromise our core values for the sake of reaching any deal. Our core values are not negotiable.
Many of my Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives joined me in 2015 in voting to hold the Iran regime accountable for its human rights record. It's time for those same voices to speak up again. I hope Democrats and Republicans will stand together to demand that we not abandon our values or the common cause we share with our allies. The ultimate success of any engagement with North Korea will depend upon it.
Brendan F. Boyle is a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Pennsylvania's 13th Congressional District since Jan. 3, 2015.