President Trump met with North Korean defectors in the Oval Office on Friday, a provocative action meant to highlight human rights violations and one that could raise alarms in Pyongyang.
Trump welcomed eight defectors — six who live in South Korea and two who live in the United States — two days after he punctuated his State of the Union address by praising Ji Seong-ho, a defector from North Korea who had been invited to watch the address from the first lady's box. He was among the group at the White House on Friday.
During brief remarks to reporters, Trump, seated next to Ji, said some of the defectors had remained in another room out of sight of the television cameras because they remain fearful for their safety. “They are petrified to be here,” Trump said. “It's tough stuff.”
As he has before, Trump criticized past administrations for not acting more forcefully on North Korea, though he did not specify whether he meant shutting down the nation's nuclear weapons program or dealing with human rights violations, or both.
“Many administrations should have acted on this a long time ago when we weren't in this kind of position,” the president said. “It could have been done 12 years ago, it could have been done 20 years ago. . . . We have no road left. We'll see what happens. We'll get through the Olympics, and maybe something good will come out of the Olympics.”
The United States and South Korea agreed to suspend joint military exercises on the peninsula until after the two-week Winter Games, which begin Feb. 9 in PyeongChang. The North has agreed to send a delegation of athletes and officials, and they will join the South during the traditional march into the opening ceremony. But experts said such displays of harmony are unlikely to last.
The visit of the defectors offered Trump a chance to shine a spotlight on human rights abuses in North Korea, emphasizing the human costs of Kim Jong Un's authoritarian regime.
“No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea,” Trump said Tuesday night during the annual address to Congress. “North Korea's reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland.”
The visit was arranged by Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a person familiar with the meeting said. Foreign policy experts warned that there are risks for Trump to engage so directly with the defectors.
For years, the United States has tried to persuade the Kim family to agree to drop its nuclear weapons program in exchange for negotiations to lift economic sanctions and potentially restore diplomatic relations. As part of that effort, past U.S. administrations have emphasized to North Korea that their goal is disarmament, not regime change.
Trump's administration has said that it is continuing that policy. But the president's rhetoric, including vows to use military power to “totally destroy” the North, and his personal denunciations of Kim have ramped up tensions on the peninsula. Experts said Trump's embrace of defectors could also be interpreted in Pyongyang as a threat.
“Meeting them in the Oval raises the question of whether the U.S. strategy is regime change,” said one foreign-policy expert who specializes in East Asia. “It could reduce the incentive to negotiate and potentially undercut efforts [of cooperation] with China. The real question is: Is North Korea strategy changing?”
The White House had not disclosed Ji's appearance at the State of the Union ahead of time. Ji lost a leg and an arm after being hit by a train as a boy while scavenging for food during a nationwide famine. He eventually escaped to South Korea.
“Today he lives in Seoul, where he rescues other defectors and broadcasts into North Korea what the regime fears the most — the truth,” Trump said during his address to Congress. “Today he has a new leg, but Seong-ho, I understand you still keep those crutches as a reminder of how far you have come. Your great sacrifice is an inspiration to us all.”
Ji lifted his crutches as the audience of lawmakers and other guests applauded, in one of the most emotional moments of the speech.
Another of the eight defectors is Lee Hyeon-seo, a prominent human rights advocate who recounted her harrowing escape, including being sold as a bride in China, in a memoir called “The Girl With Seven Names.”
Lee, who was in the audience in South Korea’s National Assembly when Trump delivered a speech there in November, said ahead of the meeting she planned to urge Trump to stop China from repatriating North Koreans who are caught escaping.
Torture and imprisonment are standard, and some North Koreans are publicly executed, Lee said she would tell Trump.
“That’s why even today, many defectors carry poison with them in case they are caught in China. They would rather die than be repatriated to North Korea and suffer a horrible punishment for the rest of their lives,” Lee wrote in her prepared remarks to the president, shared with The Washington Post.
Aides to former president Barack Obama said they do not recall him meeting with defectors. Some of his top lieutenants, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry, did condemn North Korea's human rights record after a United Nations report in 2014.
President George W. Bush met with defectors in the Oval Office in 2006 during the Six-Party Talks with the North, the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.
“The world requires courage to confront people who do not respect human rights,” Bush said.
Anna Fifield in Seoul contributed to this report.