"Each country, including our own, needs to improve its human rights record."
Gerson calls this "moral surrender." But Hill wasn't, I would imagine, equating the human rights records of the US and North Korea. He was trying to answer a question that was set up for him to insult the country he's trying to negotiate with in the most non-inflammatory way possible. Why? Because he's negotiating with the North about its nuclear weapons.
Peronsally, I rather think the real moral surrender on US-DPRK policy took place from 2001-2006, when the Bush Administration decided it was going to ignore the North Korean regime, not have any dealings with it, and renege on the Clinton Administration deals on the grounds that the North Koreans weren't being 100% honest about their dealings... all of which led the North Koreans to restart Yongbyon, pump out tens of kilos of plutonium, and ultimately detonate a nuclear weapon. Christopher Hill was left with the unenviable task of trying to convince the North to voluntarily give up its arsenal, something that wouldn't be accomplished by scoring petty domestic points by slamming the North's grievous human rights record.
Now, Hill's task was probably futile from the start. John Bolton has repeatedly warned that "the North will never voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons," and increasingly it's looking like he's right.
But like I've always said on North Korea, foreign policy thinkers need to be more honest about their intentions. If Gerson and Bolton want to try to overthrow the North Korean regime, I want to hear them say so, with an explanation of how it's going to be done. But if we're not going to remove the regime, the most important thing is to eliminate its threat to the outside world... and that threat is as a nuclear proliferator. The human rights situation in the North is abominable, possibly the worst in the world, and it cannot be condoned. But the only way to change it is either to throw the regime out (not a feasible option) or cajole the regime over decades to modernize and join the international community, as China has, building up a middle class that will one day press for its own human rights.
Does this mean we can't talk about North Korean human rights in the meantime? No, of course not. We can, and we must. But the guy who's responsible for negotiations on the nuclear issue probably shouldn't be leading the charge. Hill is right to temper his comments on the issue. If Gerson wants to wax righteous with his Washington Post editorial space, let him, but let him also be realistic. Please.