Kim Jong-un “will never give up” developing nuclear weapons, according to a prominent North Korean dissident, who says President Trump’s energies would be better spent calling the rogue government in Pyongyang out over its disastrous human rights record.
It’s the least Mr. Trump could do if he’s serious about continuing to pursue negotiations with Mr. Kim, argues Grace Jo, who fled her homeland a decade ago after her father died in captivity at the hands of authorities who’d arrested him for crossing the Chinese border to scrounge for rice for his starving family.
“Without North Korean human rights issues, there’s nothing we can talk about besides nuclear weapons,” Ms. Jo said in remarks in Washington recently, lamenting that Mr. Trump “didn’t mention human rights issues” during his historic summit with Mr. Kim in Singapore last month.
“That wasn’t really appropriate for North Korean defectors to see,” she told The Washington Times in an interview, echoing a sentiment expressed by many others who’ve fled North Korea over the years and believe the only real solution is regime change in Pyongyang.
While the Trump administration is, alternatively, focussed on diplomacy for the time being, North Korean defectors are not the only ones frustrated with the absence of human rights issues from the president’s approach.
Leading human rights organizations have long characterized the North Korean regime as among the most oppressive in the world — using torture, forced labor and executions to suppress even the hint of opposition among the nation’s roughly 25 million people.
Several organizations sharply criticized Mr. Trump’s handling of the Singapore summit, arguing the president missed a critical opportunity to exploit global frustration with the regime’s abuses as leverage to gain concessions from Mr. Kim.
Human Rights Watch Asia Advocacy Director John Sifton argued Mr. Trump left the issue off the table because he “doesn’t really care about human rights.”
“He does care about making an impression and making a deal,” Mr. Sifton wrote in an assessment on his organization’s website after the Singapore summit.
“Here is a hard truth that [Mr. Trump’s] cabinet can hopefully explain to him,” Mr. Sifton wrote. “There will never be meaningful progress on a deal unless there is a counterproliferation verification process. And a verification process will require at least some human rights reforms, including cooperation with the UN system and its human rights bodies.”
Mr. Trump pushed the issue aside when pressed about North Korea’s human rights record during an interview with Fox News following the Singapore summit. “A lot of other people have done some really bad things,” the president said. “I mean, I could go through a lot of nations where a lot of bad things were done.”
A death in captivity
A solemn hush fell over a crowd of about 100 students in attendance as Ms. Joe shared a moving tale of her life and eventual escape from North Korea after being born into destitute and poverty there during the regime of Kim Jong Un’s father Kim Jong Il.
She recounted the horrors of a childhood in the pariah state where starvation and lack of proper medication claimed the lives of many of her family members, including her maternal grandmother and younger brothers.
She described the fear of learning her father had been taken into custody after crossing a river into China in search of food for his starving children — and later learning of his death in captivity.
Ms. Jo’s family was initially told her father was shot for trying to escape custody. Eventually, they found out he’d actually died of starvation aboard a train en route to a North Korean jail.
North Korean officials lied about the circumstances because they didn’t want to take responsibility for mistreatment of a prisoner,” said Ms. Jo, who explained that her father “received no food or drink for many hours on the train.”
“As a result, he passed away,” she said. “The officers didn’t want to be punished because of my father so they lied and that’s how we got the misinformation.”
Just months after her father’s passing in 1998, Ms. Jo, along with her mother and sister, attempted to flee North Korea for the first time by crossing the Tumen River into China. Ms. Jo, nestled in her mother’s backpack during the journey, was only six years old at the time. They were eventually caught hiding in China and returned to North Korea where they endured imprisonment and torture.
When Ms. Jo her family tried to escape a second time after her mother bribed a border guard, they were again caught and repatriated.
A brazen escape
Ms. Jo said everything changed in 2006.
That was the year Korean-American pastor Phillip Buck, a longtime advocate of North Korean defectors and refugees, bribed six high-ranking officers of the regime in Pyongyang with $10,000 to allow her and her family to flee to China.
While in China, Ms. Jo and her family wrote about their nightmare to the United Nations, and were granted refugee status to live safely in Beijing. In 2008, the family was welcomed as refugees in the United States.
During the years since, Ms. Jo has become one of the most vocal advocates for North Korean refugees and their families, serving as Vice-President of the Washington D.C.-based human rights advocacy group NKinUSA.
The nonprofit organization helps resettle North Korean refugees hiding in China and other Southeast Asian to the United States. It provides financial assistance and helps them safely integrate into communities.
NKinUSA claims on its website that it has aided the resettlement of more than half of the at least 200 North Koreans who’ve granted U.S. refugee status since 2012.
According to Ms. Jo, the cost of rescuing one individual directly from North Korea is about $14,000. She acknowledges some of the money is for bribes. “On the border between North and South Korea, the soldiers there ask for so much money, so that’s almost impossible for a small organization to afford,” she said.
But Ms. Jo said there is no other choice, arguing that the only way to end human rights abuses in North Korea is to topple the regime.
“The very effective way we can solve these North Korean human rights issues is to bring down the regime,” she said. “But of course that involves many countries’ political relationships, but I believe the U.S. government has that power to do so.”
In the interim, she asserted, North Korean denuclearization is just a pipe dream. “We already know that North Korean government will never give up nuclear development,” she said, arguing that Mr. Kim’s willingness to negotiate is a sham borne out of financial desperation.
“He is not genuine. Right now, North Korea really needs more time and money because the U.S. keeps pushing the sanctions,” Ms. Jo said. “They’re facing financial crisis right now, so they have to come up with this strategy to weaken the sanctions.”