The lead-up to President Donald Trump’s upcoming face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong Un has proven to be full of drama and uncertainty. After on-again, off-again grandstanding and several preliminary meetings, it looks like the two leaders will actually show up for the cameras on June 12.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is likely letting out a long sigh of relief as the scrapping of the U.S.-North Korea summit was a momentary embarrassment for his administration. Now, in small pockets of Seoul and Washington, D.C., a group of North Korean defectors and their supporters are voicing concern over Kim’s meet-ups. And in some cases, they outright oppose them.
“It’s just a political show,” Jung Gwang-il, a North Korean defector and founder of a Seoul-based activist group called No Chain for North Korea, which sends aid and forbidden media to North Korea, said through an interpreter. “The conservatives are selling this summit on the basis of national security, and the liberals are selling it on the basis of peace. The citizens, however, are just victims of this political push and pull.”
Jung, who met with Trump in March to discuss human rights abuses in North Korea, sent a letter to the White House in late May requesting that the president bring up human rights at the June 12 summit. He said he hopes that Trump will specifically mention North Korean prison camps, which currently imprisons an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 people. Jung himself spent roughly three years in one such camp, where he says he was tortured, starved and forced to bury inmates’ bodies.
Prison camps aren’t the only problem with North Korea. The average North Korean citizen is also subject to high-tech surveillance from their government, limited free speech and restricted movement (North Koreans need a permit to leave their town or province). In fact, the U.N. Human Rights Council has a 372-page report outlining all the different kinds of human rights abuses in North Korea. Jung and other activists want those atrocities to be just as prominent as the subject of denuclearization.
“We absolutely want human rights to be on the agenda at this summit,” Suzanne Scholte, activist and chairman of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, said by phone. “Stop killing your people. Stop detaining and torturing people for trying to reach South Korea, or intimidating the families of defectors who made it to South Korea.”
Scholte and about 30 North Korea-related organizations signed a letter on April 28 calling on Trump to demand the dismantlement of North Korean prison camps.
“The worst case scenario is that Trump doesn’t bring up human rights at all,” Henry Song, a human rights activist in Washington, D.C. who works with North Korean refugees, said. “If you forget about prison camps and the lack of human rights in North Korea — if you only talk about denuclearization — then [the summit] is just pointless.”
Support for Trump
There’s an unexpected dynamic between Trump and the North Korean defector-activist community — one that may come as a shock to the roughly 53% Americans who said this week they were unhappy with his performance. Many of these defectors appear to support Trump, or they’re at least hopeful that he will fulfill their wishes at the summit in Singapore. That’s largely because Trump has paid more attention to the situation than former U.S. presidents, with the most obvious example being his invitation for a North Korean defector to attend the State of the Union on Jan. 30.
“I would say that about 90% of defectors I know are very pro-Trump and anti-Moon. He knows about the [human rights] issue and he’s met defectors,” Song said. “They basically feel Trump has done more about human rights in his first year than Obama did in all eight years.”
While there’s no official poll regularly gauging North Korean defectors’ opinions on U.S. presidents, Song said that many of the defectors he spoke with were even pleased with Trump’s performance — even when he was edging the peninsula toward war in 2017. At the time, experts worried that Kim would retaliate out of fear after Trump threatened to strike North Korea.
“To hear Trump talk about ‘fire and fury’ and ‘little rocket man’ — this is stuff they’ve never heard before. It’s stuff they’ve wanted their own South Korean president to say, but they aren’t getting that from Moon,” Song said, adding that some even were calling for Trump to drop a bomb on North Korea or conduct a targeted strike.
“I thought that was ridiculous, but I’ve heard defectors talk about their families and how the misery has gone on for just too long — that there should be a war and then it can all just be dealt with. It comes out of frustration and hopelessness. They’ve been living a nightmare in North Korea,” Song added.
However, there’s nuance here: More than 31,000 North Koreans are now living as South Korean citizens, and only a very small fraction of them are known activists who criticize the summit.
“I get the general impression that it’s an activist thing. I don’t think the entire community is unified in opposition to talking with the North,” Peter Ward, a Seoul-based columnist for NK News and a former researcher at the Asan Institute, said. “In fact, I think many don’t have strong opinions at all on the summit.”
Afraid of being fooled
Activists and politicians do have one thing in common: a fear that Kim Jong Un is only pretending to be sincere when he shakes hands with world leaders and makes grand promises. Even before Kim smiled and hugged Moon Jae-in at the Demilitarized Zone, experts speculated that he is using diplomacy only for his own endgame.
So, even if Kim promised to denuclearize or end human rights abuses, would he actually do it?
“Would it even make any difference if the U.S. mentioned human rights? No. It’s done to make us feel better about the fact that we’re talking about it and trying to negotiate with a regime that does these terrible things,” Ward said. “The political system in North Korea will be the last thing to change. Improving lives of North Koreans will start economically, with years and years of reconstructing the country.”
Scholte thinks it’s a total con.
“I believe the defectors: that he’s on a charm offensive and has no intention of giving up nuclear weapons,” Scholte said. “I would love to believe Kim Jong Un is different from his father, but I would never sit down with him unless I saw some real changes first.”
“Just give them one human right,” Scholte added. “Just take the entire international human rights declaration and just give them one — the right to choose a profession, the freedom of movement. That would show me things are really changing.”