As the world awaits the landmark summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, commentators around the world are weighing in on what should be discussed. There is wide consensus that denuclearization must be a central part of the conversation, of course. But we at Open Doors are hoping the conversation goes much further to address Kim’s long history of human rights abuses in North Korea, particularly his notorious prison camp system designed to punish anyone whose worldview doesn’t align with his own.
Today, I spoke to John Choi, a believer from North Korea and Open Doors partner who is now living in an undisclosed country outside of his homeland. John uses an alias because it is still, even now, too dangerous to reveal his real name. If his true identity were to get out, there is a possibility that friends or family members who still live in North Korea would be sought out and punished by the regime.
Despite the hardships John faced in North Korea, he has chosen to continue to speak out on his country’s behalf. We recently spoke with Choi about his perspective on Kim Jong Un’s meeting with President Trump. His unique insights are captured below.
Sarah: As a native North Korean, what was your reaction to recent news that North Korea is destroying its nuclear testing facilities?
John: This track [North Korea] is on is very similar to the path followed by Pakistan. Kim Jong Un said, “The northern nuclear test site has completed its missions,” because “nuclear weaponization had been achieved.” These statements, in my opinion, seem to suggest Kim Jong Un is still ambitious to persist in holding the current nuclear weapons.
It is possible if the talks ended with good outcomes, North Korea will invite the international inspection to monitor the closed nuclear test sites and facilities. However, as for the future, I would still be concerned that nuclear, biological and chemical weapon tests could arise again depending on circumstances.
Sarah: So you don’t necessarily believe it is a true move toward disarmament?
John: If you would ask this question to all North Korean escapees, our response to the international community would be similar. North Korea has closed only one northern nuclear test site so far. There are likely several other nuclear test sites used in six tests over the past years.
Sarah: Have you heard from any North Koreans about their reaction to the possible dismantling of nuclear weapons facilities? How is this move being discussed or perceived in country?
North Koreans discuss all this, but they have limited information because they’ve been educated and brainwashed to believe in their leadership. All their lives, they’ve been told each accomplishment is due to the great performance of Kim Jong Un and they’ve been required to respect that. They’ve also been fed propaganda that is hostile to the rest of the world in preschool, schools, university and public life.
Sarah: Kim Jong Un recently met with President Moon. What was your reaction to this news?
John: I had a conversation with a former North Korean diplomat (who I can’t identify for security reasons) on this topic recently. We wondered if North Korean elites were trying to gain insight into South Korean politics and its military scale. As the world talks about the possible withdrawal of U.S. troops from Seoul, former residents like myself find it hard to trust that North and South Korea might not end up in a conflict in the days to come.
Right now, this meeting and President Moon’s second meeting with Kim Jong Un seem like a carrot strategy. The international community is dangling a carrot—the ability to participate in the international market and trade. If Kim wants power and position, he has to cooperate at some level. But we should keep in mind that he might only be cooperating in order to get more power.
Sarah: Are North Koreans hopeful that the peninsula might be reunited?
Perhaps more North Korean people want a reunified Korea, we can’t be sure, but only 12.3% of South Koreans want to restore the unity and identity of the Korean people, according to a 2017 survey. However, the North Korean people don’t have access to enough information. They’ve been led to believe their poverty is caused by the division of the peninsula. If they ever discover the truth—that South Koreans lead such a democratic and prosperous life—their opinions may change.
Sarah: It’s been confirmed President Trump will meet Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12th. What do you expect Kim Jong Un hopes to accomplish in the meeting?
John: Kim Jong Un must first agree to the denuclearization process. In return, he likely hopes for economic support and the easing the international sanctions. But Kim will have difficulty doing this because he has no intention of changing the level of power and control the regime holds. Also, Kim wants to demand an official peace treaty to end the Korean War of 1953. If that happens, it will be interesting to see what nations step in or withdraw. Kim wants the U.S. to back away from South Korea, it seems. But at the same time, he seems to be trying to deepen his relationship with China.
Sarah: What human rights conditions in North Korea would you hope that President Trump will address in this meeting?
John:I urge President Trump, and every democratic national leader and international actor, to address the atrocities of the prison camps, prisoners, imprisonment, torture, execution, enforced disappearance, arbitrary arrest, forced rape, persecution, assassination and starvation in North Korea.
Sarah: What specific actions could President Trump call on Kim Jong Un to take to restore religious freedom in the country?
It is almost impossible for me to expect that Kim Jong Un would allow a North Korean citizen to hold the Bible on the street of Pyongyang and walk to church freely. I don’t think he’s ready to grant religious freedom or other freedoms—the freedom of expression, of speech, of opportunity.
North Korea does not uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Charters Article 18 that states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
For North Koreans to be granted basic human rights and religious freedom, the international community would need to inspect the prison camps, to investigate how Christian prisoners are being tortured and killed—and to look into the human rights abuses prevalent across the country.