Will Trump Raise North Korea's Human Rights Abuses At Summit With Kim Jong Un? "No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship of North Korea," the president said in January. Human rights experts fear the issue may be ignored now.

Will Trump Raise North Korea's Human Rights Abuses At Summit With Kim Jong Un?

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Beyond the North Korean regime's threat to the world is its threat to its own people. Twenty-five million North Koreans have no freedom of speech or movement or religion. NPR's Elise Hu reports that human rights groups are urging the president to remember that in negotiations.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: In this year's State of the Union address, President Trump called North Korea a menace and called out its regime.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea.

HU: It's a system Ji Seong Ho was born into. He nearly starved to death during North Korea's mid-'90s famine, then lost an arm and leg when they were crushed by a train. He eventually defected to freedom on crutches. His father tried to escape, too, but was tortured to death after he got caught. The president recounted Ji's story in that speech while Ji was in the audience.


TRUMP: Your great sacrifice is an inspiration to us all. Please, thank you.


HU: Looking back on that moment now from his base in Seoul...

JI SEONG HO: (Speaking Korean).

HU: Ji calls it a great honor to have attended and to see the president highlight North Korea's abuses. This year, he's watched as Trump has swung from maximum pressure to frenzied diplomacy. Ji says he expects the president to bring up the oppression in his former country.

JI: (Speaking Korean).

HU: "What I want to tell the global community is that it's better to focus not on Kim Jong Un but on the North Korean people," Ji says.

JI: (Speaking Korean).

HU: The whole world knows how bad the situation in North Korea is, so bad that a 2014 U.N. report says the government there commits a number of crimes against humanity, including prison camps, torture and summary executions. Scott Stevens at the Seoul-based nonprofit called Transitional Justice Working Group has tracked for years many of the state-sponsored abuses that have millions living in fear.

SCOTT STEVENS: Always being afraid of your neighbors overhearing what radio broadcasts you're listening to or even having family members disappeared by the state or executed publicly for crimes that I think most people would identify as being pretty minor.

HU: More than 300 nongovernmental groups around the world now are calling on the North Korean regime to reform the way it treats its people. They're hoping President Trump uses the upcoming summit to insist on human rights improvements as part of any security deals.

STEVENS: Obviously we all have a vested interest in making sure that nuclear war doesn't happen. The survival of the human race is important. But also, the conditions for what we survive in are important, and you really can't downplay the value of human rights.

HU: But have they already been downplayed? Trump said the topic didn't even come up last week when he hosted a high-ranking North Korean at the White House. And congressional leaders aligned with the president sound OK with that. At a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Republican Senator Ed Risch (ph) of Idaho said America consistently stands up for open societies. But in this case, maybe it's a risk.


JIM RISCH: Look; we're all about human rights. We always have been. We always will be. That's going to be us. But if you try to overload this and try to resolve all these things at once, I think you're just setting the thing up for failure.

HU: Defenders of human rights challenge that notion. They argue the security threat and North Korea's absence of individual freedoms are connected. Sokeel Park is South Korea country director for Liberty in North Korea, a refugee group. He says any deal should be oriented toward a better life for the 25 million North Koreans.

SOKEEL PARK: If we don't do that, then we're really just dealing with the symptom of the problem and not the fundamental problem, which is the nature of North Korea as a state.

HU: Will human rights still make the summit agenda? The president said maybe.


TRUMP: Could be could, yeah, could be. I think we probably will and maybe in great detail. We...

HU: Negotiators from both sides are still hammering that out. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the broadcast version of this report we incorrectly referred to Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, as Sen. Ed Risch.]

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