North Korean defectors are hopeful amid ‘beautification of Kim Jong-un’

SEOUL, South Korea -- History was made two months ago Sunday as President Donald Trump walked across a platform in Singapore to shake hands with the supreme leader of North Korea.

Since the summit, critics have argued little has been accomplished. Regardless, the Trump administration continues working publicly to convince Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear capabilities.

It’s an effort that has created a new sense of hope for scores of people in South Korea as they yearn for the re-unification of the two Koreas.

Less than a month after the summit, I embarked on a fellowship to the Korean Peninsula with five other American journalists.

The experience -- made possible through the support from the East-West Center and Korea Press Foundation (U.S. and Korean government-supported organizations) -- allowed us to gain a better understanding of Korean perspectives.

Most of our time was spent in Seoul, just 35 miles from the Demilitarized Zone.

The swath of land that straddles the border between the north and south is where wartime history meets a tourism enterprise of selfies and souvenir shopping.

It’s a site of intrigue for people who desire to learn more about the Korean War and the reclusiveness of North Korea.

“I had experience in ... six prison camps in China and North Korea,” said Joo Seong-ha, who escaped North Korea in 1998 after facing prosecution. “I tried to make a secret organization against the Kim regime at that time, I tried.”

Joo Seong-ha was one of two North Korean defectors to spoke to American journalists during our fellowship. He is lucky to be alive.

A friend with powerful connections to the regime was able to get him out of detention -- a chance for an escape to China.

He immigrated to South Korea in 2002 and now works as a journalist in Seoul. Joo Seong-ha says he has hope for President Trump’s efforts but warns America’s strategy needs to change.

“The U.S. does not understand North Korea,” he said.

North Korea’s distrust of the United States is at such a level, Trump needs to show more goodwill by fulfilling some of Kim Jong-un’s wishes, according to Joo Seong-ha. The goal, he said, would to eventually achieve denuclearization and a unified Korea.

“If there is no military option to deal with North Korea, holding talks is the right way,” fellow defector Hyun Inae said.

Hyun Inae hopes for more dialogue that will lead to results but says it will be difficult to achieve unification.

“We had high hopes for the summit, but actually it was a little bit disappointing,” she said— explaining that she wished more progress would’ve have happened in the weeks following the summit in Singapore.

As the the United States and North Korea continue posturing, Hyun Inae says it’s important to not forget the brutality of the Kim regime especially amid what is being described as a media beautification campaign of the dictator.

“I think the South Korean government is shying away from the human rights issue because it doesn’t want to get on bad terms with North Korean regime, so North Korean defectors are all worried about that,” she said.

The beautification campaign -- as it’s called -- is on display in both print and broadcast journalism in South Korea. It seems many South Koreans are willing to temporarily turn a blind eye on the evils of the Kim regime as a means to eventually achieve better relations.

Those close to negotiations in South Korea explained that the decision to -- in a way -- appease Kim Jong-un by not focusing on human rights could be of greater benefit if denuclearization and better relationships are achieved.

Most of the Koreans who spoke with American journalists during the fellowship say they want a unified peninsula, but some worry about the economic and social impact unification would have on the South Korean economy.

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