At the White House, North Korean defectors tell their stories

Some survived North Korea’s infamous labor camps while others suffered near starvation. All eight escaped North Korea and on February 2 met President Trump at the White House to share their heroic stories.

“There’s great danger, great risk,” the president said from the Oval Office. He called their stories “incredible and very inspirational.”

Among those meeting the president: Ji Seong-ho, who had lost limbs and endured horrific treatment before his escape and whom President Trump had invited to his January 30 State of the Union address. “No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea,” Trump said during the speech. Ji responded by holding aloft the rough wooden crutches he used in North Korea. In that iconic moment, the entire audience of lawmakers and other government officials rose to their feet to applaud Ji’s courage.

White House visitors

Lee Hyeonseo, who at 17 escaped to China and later settled in South Korea, also visited the president’s office on February 2. In a Facebook Live event later that day at the State Department, she said that many defectors who try to escape carry poison, in case they are caught in China. “They’d rather kill themselves than be repatriated to North Korea,” Lee said. “I just want Americans to share our story.” She wrote about her experience in the 2015 memoir The Girl with Seven Names.

Defectors take enormous risks to bring abuses of the North Korean regime to light. Details of their suffering are “difficult to hear, but they are necessary to hear,” Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in December 2017 when she held a discussion of North Korea’s human rights abuses.

Defectors from North Korea have described horrific treatment, including torture, sexual violence, summary executions, starvation and forced abortions. The country’s political prison system detains hundreds of thousands of individuals, including children.

In addition to committing atrocities against its own people, the government of North Korea recklessly and illegally seeks to threaten the world with nuclear weapons.

Before meeting with the North Korean defectors, Trump spoke with South Korean President Moon Jae-in to discuss the importance of improving the human rights situation in North Korea, the White House said in a statement.