WASHINGTON - With just a week before the Olympic Games begin on the Korean Peninsula, U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday sought to increase pressure on Pyongyang over its nuclear program by consulting with allies and highlighting the human rights abuses suffered by defectors from North Korea.
Trump hosted about a half-dozen North Korean defectors in the Oval Office, including Ji Seong-ho, who had used crutches to escape the reclusive country after a train ran over his limbs. Days earlier, Ji raised his crutches in triumph when Trump singled him out during his State of the Union address.
Trump called the defectors “great people that have suffered incredibly.”
“There were many, many others like them that have suffered so much,” he said.
Among the others Trump hosted were Hyeonseo Lee, an author who wrote about her escape from North Korea and her life as a fugitive in China, and Young-soon Kim, who was imprisoned for nine years after learning of a friend’s affair with Kim Jong Il, the former dictator and father of the nation’s current leader.
Lee said she was in the audience when Trump spoke last year in front of South Korea’s National Assembly, and told Trump she “wanted to shout with joy” because she was so moved.
“You put the spotlight on North Korea’s human rights issues in front of the entire South Korean National Assembly, and refreshed the attention on these kind of issues,” she said, adding that she could not thank the president enough.
Ji also spoke, telling Trump he’d been moved to tears that his story had been included in the State of the Union speech — and on Trump’s Instagram account.
“I’m so appreciative that President Trump thinks about how the people in North Korea are suffering and that you’re paying attention and trying to help us,” he said.
Trump also called the leaders of South Korea and Japan on Friday to ask them to keep up the pressure. He suggested that recent communication between North Korea and South Korea, which is hosting the Olympics in Pyeongchang, was a positive development.
“They are in dialogue, at least as it concerns the Olympics, and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing,” Trump said.
The president avoided some of the inflammatory rhetoric he has used previously on North Korea, including threatening to unleash “fire and fury” on the rogue nation and dubbing their leader “Little Rocket Man.”
North Korea has not tested a missile since November and resumed inter-Korean dialogue in January, leading to the agreement on its Olympics participation and easing tensions.
Trump has expressed a willingness to deal with rising tensions through diplomacy, but he has said the United States would use military force on North Korea if needed.
He declared the standoff with the rogue regime “a tricky situation” and again blamed previous administrations for letting the crisis linger for decades.
“We have no road left, so we’ll see what happens,” Trump said. “We’re going to find out how it goes. But we think the Olympics will go very nicely, and after that, who knows? We’ll find out. We’ll find out pretty soon, I suspect.”
The North-South talks, the first in two years, came after Washington and Seoul agreed to push back a routine military drill until after the Olympics and Paralympics. The games begin next week and run until March 18.
In a letter to the United Nations published by North Korea’s official news agency, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho warned against resuming the drills, which Pyongyang sees as practice for invasion.
He said that whenever the drills took place “the peace and security of the Korean peninsula were gravely threatened and the inter-Korean mistrust and confrontation reached the top, thus creating great difficulties and obstacles ahead of hard-won dialogues”.
“We will make every effort to improve inter-Korean relations in future, too, but never sit idle with regard to sinister act of throwing a wet blanket over our efforts,” Ri said.
He accused the United States of misleading public opinion by claiming that its pressure campaign, including “their harshest sanctions”, had brought about the inter-Korean talks, when the “dramatic turning point” was thanks to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.