On a day when President Trump said he was close to agreeing to a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, a group of North Korean defectors said Pyongyang should be forced to address its abysmal human rights record before any more U.S. concessions are granted.
The defectors, who held a briefing at the National Press Club on Tuesday, urged the U.S. administration to reject all offers by North Korea to sign a former peace treaty as part of the talks until the North addresses the human rights issue is addressed. Since the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore in June, Mr. Kim’s regime has pushed for a peace deal before it takes final steps to end its nuclear programs, something the U.S. has resisted.
The defectors said they feared Pyongyang’s human rights record could get lost in the rush to cut a deal.
“Mr. Trump, please discuss human rights with Mr. Kim when you meet him,” said defector Kang Chol-hwan. “If you want to give a gift of an end-of-war declaration, ask him to dismantle all the gulags that exist in the North in return.”
The Korean War ended with a military cease-fire, in the form of an armistice, and no formal peace treaty was ever signed.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Tuesday he made “real progress” on his fourth visit to North Korea last week, where he met with Mr. Kim and later in South Korea with President Moon Jae-in, to discuss a second summit and other moves to denuclearize the divided Korean Peninsula.
“While there’s still a long way to go and much work to do, we can now see a path to where we’ll achieve the ultimate goal, which is the full and final verified denuclearization of North Korea,” Mr. Pompeo said at the White House after a lunch with Mr. Trump.
Addressing the second summit, Mr. Trump said “we’re setting that up right now” adding that “Singapore was fantastic, but we’ll probably do a different location.”
The agenda also appeared to be evolving with Mr. Trump saying North Korea’s leader was anxious for international sanctions to be lifted, while Washington is requiring a verifiable dismantling of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal first.
Mr. Kang documented the North’s brutal prison network in his book, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang,” written after surviving 10 years the notorious Yodak prison labor camp northeast of Pyongyang. He has also briefed President George W. Bush on the Kim regime.
Speaking at the National Press Club event organized by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, Mr. Kang argued Pyongyang’s top priority is to get all U.S. troops removed from the Korean Peninsula.
“That would lead to the North invading South Korea,” Mr. Kang said through an interpreter.
Ji Seong-ho was hailed in Mr. Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address as “an inspiration to us all” after defying the brutality of the Kim regime, surviving a leg and hand amputation without anesthesia before escaping to South Korea.
He said he is now worried the U.S. administration was missing an urgent opportunity to address human rights abuses, especially given that the North was negotiating out of desperation.
“Kim Jong-un has been put to the fire and he wants a [peace] declaration for that reason,” he said. “North Korea is pressed for time and it must produce something tangible, now. If somebody wants to declare the end of the war, they must declare the end of human rights abuse — now.”
David Maxwell, a retired U.S. Special Forces colonel and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said he believes the declaration will be granted this year, but lamented that the U.S. was “losing leverage” by not addressing human rights in the negotiations, especially with North Korea’s political and economic lifeline, China.
“It is a paradox,” Mr. Maxwell said. “As we focus on North Korea’s weapons program, we enhance the legitimacy of [the Kim] regime. Whereas focusing on human rights undermines his regime.”
Mr. Kang agreed that more pressure needed to be applied to the Kim regime.
“North Korea’s economy is on the verge of collapsing,” he said. “South Korea and the U.S. should be able to dictate the terms [of the current talks]. But on the ground it seems the opposite is occurring. North Korea is dictating the terms.”
• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.