Last week, Donald Trump became the first sitting American president to set foot on North Korean soil, briefly stepping across the Demilitarized Zone to chat face-to-face with North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un. The two agreed to restart stalled talks on a nuclear agreement, leading many to hail Trump as someone who could do what no other president has been able to do. But one very prominent North Korean defector wasn’t cheering. She believes that Trump not only let himself be swindled, but made it less likely that she’ll ever see her home again.
Back in 2014, 21-year-old Yeonmi Park stunned the world with an emotional speech at the One Young World summit in Dublin, in which she revealed how she escaped from North Korea to China because her family literally could not survive otherwise. Watch here.
Park was born in 1993, and most of her early years coincided with the height of a massive famine that overtook the country in the 1990s. While her family was spared the worst of it, she knew early on that what she was seeing with her own eyes didn’t jibe with the constant drumbeat of propaganda that has long been part of life in North Korea.
After her father was arrested for illegal trading in 2002, her family’s living situation took a nosedive. Recalling how there were lights just over the border in China, she knew that if she went toward them things would get better. She and her mother fled to China in 2007, eventually making their way to South Korea by way of Mongolia in 2009.
Since then, Park has made it her life’s work to tell about what life is really like in North Korea. She believes that as a defector, she has a duty to speak up for greater human rights in a country that has ranked at or near the bottom of most measures of human rights for decades. She has written a best-selling book about her escape, “In Order To Live,” and is currently studying economics at Columbia.
When Park learned about Trump’s visit to the DMZ, she was appalled.
She also found Trump’s willingness to shake hands with Kim difficult to understand, in light of a 2014 tweet by none other than Trump himself.
In an op-ed for The Hill, Park argued that Trump’s visit to “the giant gulag that is North Korea” played right into the hands of Kim Jong-un–or “Dear Respected,” as he is called in North Korea. Moreover, she believes that with Trump’s visit, “my chances of returning alive and free to that country have declined again.”
Park noted that like his father, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, and his grandfather, “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un sees visits like this as “photo ops” intended to tell the North Korean people and the world that he isn’t going away in the foreseeable future. She believes that if Trump was “a good negotiator,” he would have seen that he was being played.
Park then gives the world a crash course on what things are really like in North Korea. She accuses Kim and his minions of deliberately keeping people in poverty when there is enough food to feed the entire population “twice over.” As a result, the average North Korean is three inches shorter than the average South Korean. At last count, she says, the Kims’ “brutal dictatorship” has killed over six million people. She believes coming to North Korea as a “friend” of Kim would be like FDR or Truman going to Auschwitz as a “friend” of Hitler.
This isn’t the first time that a North Korean defector or refugee has tried to give Trump a lesson on what things are really like in their country. It’s why Park has a simple question for Trump: “Why then do you give these criminals what they want?” To her mind, Trump is no different from Neville Chamberlain hanging Czechoslovakia out to dry at Munich.
As she sees it, Trump is “a weak man” who has not only given in to a criminal regime, but has “failed in his campaign promises” to his own people. She urges Trump to change course and stop “colluding with the criminal Kim regime” for what she admits is a selfish reason–“I would like to go home someday.”
Chances are that the isn’t the only North Korean defector who wants to see her country again. Perhaps if Trump actually had people on his staff who knew what makes North Korea tick, he would have come to the same conclusion as Park. As it was, this looks like yet another case of a con man getting conned.
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