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Seongmin Lee Q&A Part 2: Thoughts on U.S. Relations with North Korea

North Korean escapee Seongmin Lee shares his thoughts on US relations with North Korea and the need to prioritize human rights.

Article by Jeff Kim August 28, 2018 //   4 minute read
Seongmin Lee with President and Mrs. Bush at Spirit of Liberty in New York City, October 2017.

JK: Not long ago, we had the Trump-Kim summit, with talks about denuclearization and creating a relationship with North Korea. Do you think we can trust North Korea? 

SL: I think there are a lot of questions out there, with good reason, about whether Kim Jong-un's commitment to denuclearization professed during the Singapore Summit with President Trump is trustworthy. I would say it's not. Why? The North Korean regime has never been trustworthy in such negotiations in the past. This pattern will not easily change. As it's known, this Kim family regime has long perceived the weapons program as a "treasured sword of justice” necessary to perpetuate its grip on power. At times, wolves may appear in sheep's clothing, but they won't change much. I hope I'm proven wrong.

Should we then disengage with North Korea? Yes, maybe, in certain situations. But completely? In my opinion, no. The reason is because the North Korean regime thrives when its people are isolated from the rest of the world. My hope is that there may be some channels to engage with North Korean citizens directly. If the regime is the biggest obstacle, it must also be strategically engaged in order to talk to North Korean citizens. From my observation, North Koreans are some of the most hard-working, capable people in the world. If they’re given the means we have here, North Koreans would most certainly take the matter into their hands to help shape their country into one that is free and respects human dignity.

North Koreans are some of the most hard-working, capable people in the world. If they’re given the means, North Koreans would certainly help shape their country into one that is free and respects human dignity.

JK: Human rights were not on the table during the summit. Do you think that was a mistake?

SL: I think not addressing the North Korean human rights issue was a mistake. During the meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, there wasn't anything regarding human rights. Maybe it's understandable because what was urgent at the moment was security and nuclear issues, but human rights is not a separate issue. People in North Korea know nothing about the human right issue. This is actually perpetrating human rights violations within the country. The United States seems like it does not care about the human rights issue at all. This is wrong because it gives a free hand to the North Korean regime in their violations of human rights. We need to continue addressing human rights. But this is not only true in North Korea, but also in similar countries around the world. If you don't value human dignity, what is the point of having a government or any system?

JK: More and more people are starting to show interest in North Korea. What is one thing you would tell them about North Korea or North Koreans?

SL: The most important thing for people who are interested in North Korea is to recognize the capacity of the North Korean people. There are 25 million North Koreans living under the regime. I don't think the people are as isolated as they used to be. Many people see North Koreans as brainwashed, but people in North Korea are growing and realizing what's going on in the outside world. People still lack the tools to change their lives. Through civic organizations, people would be able to unite, share information, and gather the power to fight for themselves. These people are important because they are the agents of change who can speak for freedom.

Jeff Kim is a Bush Institute Human Freedom Initiative consultant.

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