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Witness to starvation and executions, North Korean defectors hope Trump broaches human rights

President Trump has repeated that the nuclear weapons issue is now more important than 70 years of human rights atrocities committed by the Kim dynasty in North Korea. Two defectors with harrowing stories of starvation, deprivation, public executions, losing parents, and finally their escapes, speak with Nick Schifrin about what the hope for Trump’s North Korea diplomacy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, President Trump again praised North Korea's Kim Jong Un today in glowing terms.

    Mr. Trump has repeated that the nuclear weapons issue is now more important than 70 years of human rights atrocities committed by the Kim dynasty there.

    Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin spoke today with two defectors to bring us that view from the North.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Of the 25 million residents of North Korea, more than 30,000 have escaped, and lived to tell their stories.

    Sungju Lee and Ji Seong-ho are two of those defectors.

  • Sungju Lee:

    My father was a former military officer in North Korea. I was born in Pyongyang. And my father was working for Kim Il-Sung. He passed away.

    After he died, Kim Jong Il, second leader in North Korea, tried to clean the house. So, at that time, my father also made a political mistake by saying, there is no hope in North Korea. That's why my family was expelled to countryside.

    When I was in Pyongyang, I was taught that North Korea is one of the best countries in the world. But on the train cargo to the second hometown, well, there were so many beggars. There were so many kind of kids begging food from people.

    I question my father, "Father, where are we now?"

    My father told me that, "Well, son, this is reality of North Korea."

  • Ji Seong-ho (through translator):

    I was always told I should be happy and thankful to our dear leader. I believed I was happy, until I looked around and saw the reality.

    People were dying and starving around me. When I was young, I saw my grandmother starved to death. I would steal coal from trains in order to trade it for food. And, one day, I fell off the train. That's where I lost my hand and leg. This is where my hand was cut.

  • Sungju Lee:

    Although I was hungry, my father forced me to go to school.

    One day, the principals gathered the students on the ground, saying that the entire school would go to a public execution site to watch public execution. There was a man. He tried to steal copper from factories, and he smuggled this to China.

    So that's — he got nine bullets from three police officers. And then there was a woman. She met a South Korean missionary in China. Her crime was high treason. So she got nine bullets as well.

    My father told me that he wanted to go to China for food. And I told him, don't go, because that's really dangerous, because I saw public execution.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And did he ever come back?

  • Sungju Lee:

    No, he didn't come back. He didn't come back. And then my mother left home. That is the last time — last time that I could feel her.

    I had to survive by myself, because I'm the only child in my family. So I gathered friends. Including me, we were seven.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It was a gang. Is that what you would call it?

  • Sungju Lee:

    Actually, yes, it's gang, because, I mean, at that time, there were so many gangs. There were so many children gathered together because they had to protect each other.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lee's grandfather found him on the streets, and helped him escape to South Korea.

    Ji's journey, while disabled, was longer and harder.

  • Ji Seong-ho (through translator):

    I had to go to Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand and take a 6,000-kilometer journey to get to safety in South Korea. It took over three months. At one point in Laos, when I had to walk in the jungles on my crutches, it was just too hard, and I cried, and I said, why did I have to be born in North Korea?

    But I was on a journey to find freedom, and I promised to myself that, if I made it safely to South Korea, I would work hard to make sure nobody would have to go through what I went through.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We are joined by one more witness. His name is Mr. Ji Seong-ho.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That journey took him all the way to President Trump's 2017 State of the Union. And he says he supports President Trump's meeting with Kim Jong Un, but says in it's important to talk about denuclearization and human rights.

  • Ji Seong-ho (through translator):

    I am hoping that this summit wasn't a one-off meeting. I hope there will be more summits and meetings between the U.S. and North Korea, and Trump will raise North Korean human rights.

  • Sungju Lee:

    Nuclear issue and human rights issue has to go together.

    United States is established based on values, which are freedom, democracy, and human rights. I really appreciate Americans, because you guys have these values, enjoy these values. Also, you guys have your own duty, which is that, if you have freedom — if you have freedom, if you have democracy, if you have human rights, then you have to share these values with those who don't have these values.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the last few years, North Koreans have had more freedom to run independent businesses.

    Sungju Lee predicts that will change the country.

  • Sungju Lee:

    Through markets, there are now — there are the new kind of a generation, new social class are growing. So, if the number of these people expanded, that's going to be time for change of North Korea.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sungju Lee and Ji Seong-ho recently won a National Endowment for Democracy award for work getting other North Koreans to safety.

    But Sungju Lee's most important defector was from his own past.

    And tell me how you responded when you found out your father was still alive.

  • Sungju Lee:

    I saw my father in South Korea. I — I just cried. There's nothing to say. There was nothing to say. Literally, just I cried and cried and cried again.

    So, my father approached me, and he hugged me, and then, saying, "Son, I'm so sorry." And both of us were crying.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You reunited with your father, and you're also working to reunify Korea.

  • Sungju Lee:


  • Nick Schifrin:

    Why? What does it mean to reunify Korea for you?

  • Sungju Lee:

    It's only way to go home. That's my personal — personal thinking. It's not government. It's for people living in — and people living in — on the Korean Peninsula.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Until then, North Korea will remain a closed dictatorship, full of human rights abuses, as well as missiles and nuclear weapons.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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