North Korean Dissidents Lament That Human Rights Are a Non-Issue as Trump Meets Kim

The State Department says it will address rights issues at other venues.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks upon the return of American detainees Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song, and Tony Kim after they were released by North Korea, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on May 10. (Saul Loeb/AFP)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks upon the return of American detainees Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song, and Tony Kim after they were released by North Korea, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on May 10. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Yeonmi Park, who fled North Korea at age 13, was forced to become a child bride, and eventually made her way to the United States, credits Donald Trump for doing more than previous American presidents to spotlight human rights abuses in her native country.

But as Trump begins a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, she’s angry that the issue is not on the agenda.

For her and many North Korean defectors and dissidents around the world, the summit has prompted conflicting emotions: hope that it might lead to greater openness in their former country but also disappointment that Trump is focusing almost exclusively on dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.

“I do give Trump much credit,” Park said in an interview in New York, where she’s now a student at Columbia University.

She said she was pleasantly surprised by Trump’s January State of the Union address in which he recounted the harrowing ordeal of another North Korean defector, Ji Seong-ho, and labeled Pyongyang the world’s most brutal dictatorship.

“That never happened in a previous administration,” Park added. 

But over the past six months, Trump has softened his criticism and occasionally lavished praise on Kim, causing concern among critics of the North Korean regime.

“He should have asked for some concessions from the North Korean side. If Trump really wants change, he should have asked [Kim] to open the concentration camps and let journalists go into the country,” she said.

Pyongyang has one of the world’s worst human rights records. The U.N. commission on human rights in North Korea found in 2014 that it routinely engages in torture, arbitrary imprisonment and execution, and forced starvation. It accused the regime of imposing a near complete ban on freedom of thought and expression.

Park, who is 24, survived the famine of the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people. She defected to China with her family by crossing a frozen river.

“At night, I could simply see the electric lights coming from China, a paved road and cars running around, something we’ve never had in our country. I was thinking maybe that on the other side, I could get some food,” she said.  

But once in China, human traffickers forced her to marry at age 13. She recounts the story in her book, In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom. A lecture she gave at the 2014 One Young World summit has been viewed almost 4 million times on YouTube.

Other defectors said they oppose the Singapore summit but draw satisfaction from the fact that the North Korean leader appeared to be intimidated by Trump.

“I want Kim Jong Un to know about the truth: that he is nothing, that he doesn’t have the power to fight with another country,” said Jinhye Jo, who heads a support group for North Korean refugees, NKinUSA.

Jo lost her grandmother, father, a sister, and two brothers to the famine and to government persecution before she escaped North Korea almost two decades ago.

“Other presidents tried to be nice to him. But Trump just says whatever he wants to say,” Jo said.

Ji Seong-ho, who was a special guest at Trump’s State of the Union address this year, said he has hope that the summit somehow improves the lives of North Koreans.

“As the president of the U.S., resolving missile and the nuclear weapon problem should be top priority,” Ji said in an interview. “But … he will do something for human right of North Korean people.”

The State Department said in a statement that it would use other venues to condemn North Korean human rights abuses.

“We will continue to speak out on the horrific human rights situation there, including by co-sponsoring resolutions at the U.N. Human Rights Council and U.N. General Assembly condemning the country’s systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations and abuses.”


Sookyoung Lee contributed to this report.

Amy Cheng is an editorial intern covering defense and security. Born and raised in Beijing, she spent the summer of 2017 interning for the New York Times on topics such as censorship regulations and Chinese investment overseas. She is a rising senior majoring in Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale University, where she currently serves as the online editor of the Yale Daily News. Twitter: @Amy_23_Cheng
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