11:29 A.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Okay, thank you very much. We have a very special group of people with us today. These are escapees from North Korea. There have been many of them over the last year, and there seems to be more and more. It’s a tough place to live, and people aren’t liking it. There’s great danger, great risk.
Seong-ho was with us the other night at the State of the Union Address, and really made an incredible impression on me and on everybody else, both on television and in that magnificent room. And I had an opportunity to meet with some of the folks, and their stories are amazing. And I thought, through our really fabulous interpreter, we could probably go through a couple of the stories, because they’re incredible and very inspirational. So, escapees from North Korea.
Before we start, I just had a phone call with the President of South Korea, President Moon, and they are in dialogue, at least as it concerns the Olympics. And that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. And we had a great call.
I also spoke to Prime Minister Abe of Japan, and we also had a very good call. So it’s a very tricky situation. We’re going to find out how it goes. But we think the Olympics will go very nicely. And after that, who knows. We’ll find out. We’re going to find out pretty soon, I suspect.
So I spoke to President Moon, spoke to Prime Minister Abe. And they were both very good calls, both concerning — essentially concerning North Korea.
So perhaps you can do that, and then I will — I’ll go ahead and we’ll introduce a couple of the folks.
Who would like to tell the story? Would you like to start by saying what happened and how it is over there? Because the world would like to hear.
DR. HYUN: (As interpreted.) Yes, I taught in North Korea. I was a university professor. I actually taught Juche ideology, which is the North Korean leader’s ideology.
And I fled North Korea in 2004, and the reason was my family was identified as a political prisoner, so we all had to go to a political prison, so we decided to flee and escape North Korea.
THE PRESIDENT: That’s tough stuff. That’s pretty tough. So you got out, and hopefully you’re enjoying your life?
DR. HYUN: (As interpreted.) Yes, when I was escaping North Korea, I was never exposed — never experienced the outside world, so I was very nervous because North Korea regime and North Korea was all I knew. So I think we were very much brainwashed. And so when I came to South Korea, I could never imagine there was a life like this that I could live outside North Korea.
So I was able to get educated in South Korea, and I could say, freely, whatever I thought, which — you couldn’t say anything or you couldn’t criticize anybody in North Korea. So I’m really living a new life that I had not imagined before.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, congratulations. That’s great. That’s great. It’s a great story.
Yes, go ahead.
MR. JUNG: (As interpreted.) My name is Jung Gwang-il. I was also imprisoned in North Korea — a political prison. So I was there for three years.
So I am heading an organization in South Korea called No Chain. And what we do is to try to stop abuse to North Korean political prisoners in North Korea, and we also focus on sending more information to North Korean residents so they are aware of what’s happening outside North Korea and inside.
We heard President Trump make the remark and speech at the South Korean National Assembly, and I was the first one to translate that speech and send it to North Korea. And the people who saw President Trump’s speech made at the Korean National Assembly was very moved and very impressed by the speech, and they were able to get confidence and support.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. That’s very nice. Thank you very much. Hope it helped. That’s great.
MS. KIM: (As interpreted.) My name is Kim Young-soon. I was a political prisoner in North Korea. I was imprisoned in Yodok Prison for nine years. There’s actually a musical, “Yodok,” that is made based on my story.
And I became a political prisoner because I was friends with Kim Jong-il’s wife during high school, so I knew a lot about their lives.
There were seven in our family. My husband disappeared. I didn’t know where he was. Of course, he — I believe he’s dead. So six of us went to the prison. My mother, my father, and their four — we had four children. All of them died. And so I am remaining. And I have one son who is greatly physically disabled.
So, in 1989, they said that I was spreading lies because they said that Sung Hae Rim is not a real wife of Kim Jong-il, and she had no son from Kim Jong-il. So they said, if you spread any more rumors, you’ll feel the consequences. And that’s when I decided to flee North Korea.
I fled North Korea in 2001, and I spent two and a half years in China. And I came to South Korea after that, and it’s been 14 years since I’ve lived in South Korea.
THE PRESIDENT: And things are going well?
MS. KIM: (As interpreted.) Yes, after I came to South Korea, I don’t think I’ve made any contribution to South Korea, but they welcomed me. And I have a very positive mind. So I’m very appreciative what I have right now and live happily.
THE PRESIDENT: That’s great. Great story. Thank you very much. It’s an amazing story.
MR. JUNG: Thank you for inviting us in to listen.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
MR. JUNG: This is Peter (inaudible) from Radio Free Asia, a broadcast supported by the U.S. government. I have been working in the USA. So I escaped to China in 2000, and I lived in South Korea for seven years. And the Radio Free Asia (inaudible) invited me to work in Washington, D.C.
So we are happy in the United States. And last year, I became a U.S. citizen. I was very honored to become United States citizen.
THE PRESIDENT: Great. Wow. That’s fantastic. Congratulations.
MR. JUNG: Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: That’s great. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.
MS. LEE: Mr. President, my name is Hyeonseo Lee, and I’m the author of “The Girl with the Seven Names.” And I come from the most ridiculous country on Earth.
First, I want to thank you for that you said the U.S. will act alone on North Korea if China does not help. That made me cry, because that’s what exactly what I wanted to hear for so long from leaders like you.
And I was present at your speech at the South Korea’s National Assembly last November, and I really wanted to shout with joy because I was so moved. You put the spotlight on North Korea’s human rights issues in front of the entire South Korean National Assembly, and refreshed the attention on these kind of issues. So I cannot thank you enough.
Escaping from North Korea is not like leaving another country. It’s more like leaving another universe. I will never truly be free of its gravity no matter how far I journey. After I escaped to China, I escaped an arranged marriage when I was 19, and I also escaped a brothel. And eventually, I was arrested by the Chinese police, but narrowly avoided being repatriated back to North Korea because of my Chinese language abilities. They couldn’t believe that I was a North Korean defector.
Due to all the things that are surrounding me, that I had to change my name so many times, hiding in China. So I became “The Girl with the Seven Names,” which is the title of my memoir.
So because the Chinese government continued to repatriate North Korean defectors back to North Korea, where torture and imprisonment and the horrifying public executions are standard, even today. So, many North Korean defectors, even today, they’re carrying poisons with them in case they are caught in China on their way to freedom to South Korea. They would rather die and kill themselves then be repatriated to North Korea and suffer horrifying results from the regime.
So, Mr. President, please help us to stop the repatriations from China and give North Korean people the freedom that they deserve. Thank you for your time.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. Thank you very much. It’s an amazing title of a book. Thank you.
MS. LEE: Can I give you to you?
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
MR. KIM: Mr. President, my name is Kwang-jin Kim. I defected in 2003. I worked in Singapore as a banking agent. I worked for Mr. (inaudible) who was extremely, brutally killed by his cousin. And I ran the revolution from there, and I was lucky to escape North Korea with my wife and son. And my son is now safe. He actually, you know, graduated Youngstown High School here in Arlington.
THE PRESIDENT: Good.
MR. KIM: And I worked for three years ago in a human rights committee, U.S. human rights committee (inaudible), here in Washington, DC.
Since I defected, I began to study — work for government think tank, which is called INSS, writing reports of North Korea and security issues.
And, you know, I really want to thank you for your wonderful remarks at the State of the Union and invitation of our friend Ji there. He was the only foreigner invited there, and I think — and also thank you very much for the speech last year at the South Korean Assembly. And I’m sure that your message will be — will discredit the — you know, force — will discredit the — I just forgot that exact wording of this speech. It will give courage to the North Korean elite and will be a great inspiration to many people there. So, thank you so much.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, thank you very much. That’s really — they’re incredible stories. We actually have two other people outside, and they’re literally afraid of execution. They didn’t want to be with cameras, and I can understand that. They were very concerned with that, and we would certainly not want to force them to be here. So they’re right outside but they didn’t want to be on camera for a lot of very bad reasons.
I want to thank you. You were so incredible the other night during the State of the Union. The story of walking across China — and further than that. There’s sort of a funny story: When I said I’d like to have him stand, one of my people said, “Don’t ask him to stand, he lost his foot. His leg is in terrible shape.” I said, “He just walked across China.” So he had no problem standing. I mean, to do what you’ve done is incredible. So would you like to say a few words?
MR. JI: (As interpreted.) Thank you very much. This is unimaginable for me to be here and invited in such incredible events.
I think this honor I will not forget and that I’ll carry it for the rest of my life. And I’ve been crying a lot these past few days. After I returned from the State of the Union Address and I came back to the hotel, I kept crying because I was so moved by the whole experience. And I also saw that President Trump had also put my story on the Instagram, so I cried again.
And actually, when President Trump came to South Korea and delivered his speech at the Korean National Assembly, I cried as well. So, actually, the speeches that I was so moved and influenced, and brought me to tears, are the two speeches that I heard from President Trump.
And I’m so appreciative that President Trump thinks about how the people in North Korea are suffering and that you’re paying attention and trying to help us. So, thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we do. And those are amazing stories. And I want to thank you all for being here. This is the Oval Office. Very famous office. I guess, most of you have heard about the Oval Office. A lot of things happen here. Hopefully, they’re all for the good, but a lot of things happen right in this space. So it’s my honor to have you here. Thank you.
Okay. Thank you. Thank you very much everybody. Thank you.
Q Mr. President, what do you think of the memo?
THE PRESIDENT: I think the memo — I think it’s terrible. You want to know the truth? I think it’s a disgrace. What’s going on in this country, I think it’s a disgrace. The memo was sent to Congress. It was declassified. Congress will do whatever they’re going to do, but I think it’s a disgrace what’s happening in our country.
And when you look at that, and you see that, and so many other things, what’s going on — a lot of people should be ashamed of themselves and much worse than that.
So I sent it over to Congress and they will do what they’re going to do. Whatever they do is fine. It was declassified. And let’s see what happens. But a lot of people should be ashamed. Thank you very much.
Q Are you not concerned that the FBI doesn’t want the memo out?
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much.
Q Does it make you more likely to fire Rosenstein? Do you still have confidence in him after reading the memo?
THE PRESIDENT: You figure that one out.
Q We haven’t seen it yet though.
Q (Inaudible) North Korea by having this meeting today?
THE PRESIDENT: I don’t think so. These are just great people that have suffered incredibly. There are many, many others like them that have suffered so much, and they were here and I said, let’s tell your story very quickly. We have others in a different room, as I told you, that are really petrified to be here. Petrified. So, it’s tough stuff. It’s tough stuff.
Q Mr. President, do you believe there’s more the United States can do to help North Korean defectors?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we’re doing a lot. We’ve done more than — I mean, we have many administrations that should have acted on this a long time ago when it wasn’t that this kind of a — when we weren’t in this kind of a position.
You know, we ran out of road — you know the expression. The road really ended. They could’ve done it 12 years ago. They could have done it 20 years ago. They could’ve done it four years ago and two years ago. We have no road left.
So we’ll see what happens. But, in the meantime, we’ll get through the Olympics and maybe something good can come out of the Olympics. Who knows. Thank you very much everybody. Thank you.
Q Do you still have confidence in Rosenstein after —
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much everybody.
Q Super Bowl predictions? Super Bowl predictions, sir?
THE PRESIDENT: I better not get involved. (Laughter.)
END 11:54 A.M. EST