The White House was lit with glowing Christmas trees when Ji Seong-ho arrived for a holiday reception in December, an opulence he could not have imagined as a boy in North Korea. In the Grand Foyer, to the strains of the U.S. Marine Band, Ji made a wish that his former countrymen would “be liberated one day” and witness such grandeur.
“I almost teared up,” he said in a recent interview.
It was a return to the pinnacle of political power for Ji, who rose to prominence as an activist after defecting to South Korea and played a key role in President Trump’s risky strategy to build the international pressure that helped bring North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table over his nuclear weapons program.
A year ago, Trump shared Ji’s personal story during his State of the Union address to shine a light on the brutality of Kim’s regime and praise the human spirit to overcome tyranny in a bid for freedom. It was an emotional appeal to the world that, beyond the existential nuclear threat, North Korea’s authoritarian leader was enacting savagery on his own people every day. Watching from first lady Melania Trump’s box in the House chambers, Ji stood and raised a pair of crutches over his head — a reminder of his amputated leg — to a standing ovation from both political parties.
Yet so much had changed as Ji mingled at the White House reception.
Since Ji’s starring role in last year’s State of the Union, Trump has said almost nothing about the plight of the North Korean people, more than 100,000 of whom are estimated to be held in hard-labor prison camps.
Instead, the president has abruptly shifted from a “fire and fury” condemnation of the North to an unprecedented strategy of engagement with Kim, which led to their historic summit in Singapore last June. Their joint declaration after the meeting made no mention of human rights, and Trump has spoken warmly of Kim since then.
He has said Kim has shown “courage” in moving forward with negotiations and often speaks about the “beautiful” letters the North Korean leader has sent him. At a campaign rally last fall, Trump told the crowd that as the two men got to know each another they “fell in love.”
“We have a fantastic chemistry,” Trump said in an interview with CBS News that aired Sunday.
Gone are the denunciations of the abuses Kim inflicts on his people. A second summit is tentatively booked for late February, perhaps in Vietnam.
Ji and several other North Korean defectors who visited the Oval Office a year ago remain uncertain whether their partnership with Trump will lead to the human rights improvements that they have sought.
“It was a great honor to be invited by the president, but they do not hide their disappointment under the current circumstances,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, who is executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and helped arrange the defectors’ visit to Washington.
The group has been told by the Trump administration that “there is a time for everything and ‘we still remember,’ ” Scarlatoiu added. “But one of the fundamental problems in dealing with North Korea is that unless an issue is put on the table now, it’s very difficult to add new issues to the agenda while you’re negotiating.”
White House officials declined to comment. But the administration has sent clear signals that human rights issues, including humanitarian and public health concerns, are on a second tier — an apparent strategic decision to maintain the focus on nuclear disarmament and keep the North at the table.
In December, Vice President Pence reportedly canceled a scheduled speech on North Korea’s human rights abuses, citing a scheduling conflict. But ABC News reported that the White House was concerned the speech would anger Pyongyang at a time when lower-level talks had bogged down. During lengthy remarks at Stanford University on Thursday, Stephen Biegun, the State Department’s special representative for North Korea, outlined his priorities in the negotiations, with no mention of human rights.
For Trump, there is more at play than geopolitics. With an eye on his 2020 reelection campaign, the president has cast the North Korea gambit as a budding success, and he is expected to tout progress in this year’s State of the Union address Tuesday night.
“The North Koreans do not take criticism well,” said Jean H. Lee, an analyst at the Wilson Center and a former reporter who opened an Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang in 2012. “They are very sensitive to an assault on their way of life and their political system and their penal code. I suspect there may be some reluctance to bring up the issue of defectors and showcase them in a way that Trump did last year, to avoid angering the North Koreans.”
At the reception in December, Ji felt honored to be back at the White House. But the event was crowded, and he did not have a chance to speak with Trump.
“I still have hopes for the leader of the United States,” Ji said from Seoul, where he runs a human rights organization. “It is true that President Trump has been less outspoken about rights issues since the summit. But I am not sitting here just looking at his lips. . . . Various entities in Washington can speak.”
The administration has maintained economic sanctions, some pegged to human rights abuses, that officials said will not be eased until Pyongyang takes clear steps toward denuclearization. Last July, Pence, who met with Ji and other defectors at the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February 2018, denounced North Korea, along with China and Iran, in a speech about religious rights, saying the North’s persecution of Christians has “no rival on the Earth. It is unforgiving, systematic, unyielding and often fatal.”
But, otherwise, direct criticism of the Kim regime has been muted.
In a landmark 2014 report, a U.N. commission found that the North Korean regime committed “unspeakable atrocities” against its own people on a vast scale. A separate assessment in 2017 from the International Bar Association War Crimes Committee concluded that Kim should be prosecuted for 10 separate crimes against humanity. One official, who had survived the concentration camps in Auschwitz, said North Korea’s gulags were worse than those of Nazi Germany.
At a Senate Intelligence Committee oversight hearing last week, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) asked CIA Director Gina Haspel whether the Kim regime’s human rights record has improved since Trump took office.
“I do think a vision for North Korea that further brings them into the community of nations would have a positive effect on our ability to influence them on important things like human rights,” Haspel said. But she added, “I don’t think I can point to any specific changes over the last couple of years.”
In the run-up to the 2018 State of the Union, Trump had escalated tensions with Kim, holding Pyongyang responsible for the death of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died days after being released, in a coma, after 17 months in captivity in North Korea. Trump used a speech to the South Korean National Assembly in Seoul in November 2017 to eviscerate the North as a “hell that no person deserves.”
“An estimated 100,000 North Koreans suffer in gulags, toiling in forced labor and enduring torture, starvation, rape and murder,” Trump said, citing specific atrocities, including forced abortions and a dead baby “taken away in a bucket.”
Since then, however, the administration has “made the assessment that they perceive the issue of denuclearization and arms control of greater value than advocating for human rights,” said a former Trump administration official whose current job did not allow the person to speak on the record.
“That gets to the central question of U.S. foreign policy — whether we believe that advocating for values is a fundamental tenet,” the former official said. “If such advocacy is something we think is important, absolutely this is an oversight. But if they take a more inward, ‘America First’ approach, then maybe values aren’t important.”
In general, Trump has shied away from broadly condemning foreign countries over human rights, favoring a more transactional approach, including pressuring them to free American prisoners in specific cases. Ahead of the Singapore summit, the Kim regime released three Americans as a goodwill gesture, and Trump met them on the tarmac at a military base in Maryland in a made-for-television moment.
In Singapore, the joint agreement signed by Trump and Kim focused on cooperation toward peace and prosperity, nuclear disarmament and the return of the remains of American service members.
Asked about human rights at a news conference, Trump said the topic “was discussed relatively briefly.” Reminded of the harsh language he employed at the State of the Union — when he said “no regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally” — Trump was asked whether he still believed that.
The North, Trump replied, is a “rough” place. Then he added, “It’s rough in a lot of places, by the way, not just there.”
Trump is not the only key player who has made a strategic decision not to talk about human rights. So has South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer who has staked his liberal administration on engagement with the North.
As Moon has coaxed Kim to three summit meetings, he believes “you have to make choices, you have to prioritize, in a way that moves the dialogue and the relationship forward,” South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told The Washington Post last year.
Yet experts warned that shunting aside human rights will make it more difficult to advance the U.S. security agenda. In Singapore, Trump showed Kim a White House-produced video offering two paths for North Korea — one to a fiery military confrontation and another to gleaming economic prosperity.
But Western companies will be hesitant to invest in the North without significant social changes, said Scarlatoiu, the human rights advocate. “How can you run a water and sanitation project right next to a political prison camp?” he asked.
Daniel Russel, who served as a high-ranking Asia-policy official in the Obama administration, warned that Trump is sending a message that human rights are transactional.
“In a moral vacuum, in a values-free environment, human rights is a lever to be used in service of one’s objectives,” Russel said. The administration, he suggested, could demand that Pyongyang take modest steps such as releasing political prisoners, signing the U.N. Convention against Torture or allowing humanitarian groups to visit the country.
As for Ji, he toured the United States as part of a State Department exchange program last fall, but he has not been invited to brief U.S. officials. Reflecting on the past year, he offered no regrets, saying he remains grateful for the spotlight Trump gave him last year.
“I do not feel used at all,” he said.
But he emphasized that North Korea’s abuses must not be viewed through a political lens and that it was crucial to remember that “the regime’s oppression is taking a toll on people’s lives right now as we speak.”
Kim reported from Seoul.