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Having lost an arm and a leg after being by a train years before, Ji managed to travel hundreds of miles to China – on crutches.
“Seong-ho’s story is a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom,” Trump said.
Ji is one of about 32,000 North Koreans in the past decade who have risked it all to get out from under the Kim regime – and for them the Trump-Kim summit was not just a political meeting, but a personal reckoning as well.
While Ji and other defectors ABC News spoke with agree that life in North Korea can be brutal, they have perhaps surprisingly different opinions on whether the summit was a success, and whether the North Korean people will benefit.
Ji Seong-ho, president, Now Action & Unity for Human Rights
For some defectors like Ji, who defected from North Korea in 2006, the summit was an optimistic occasion.
“The way I see it, it’s just the beginning of this relationship,” Ji told ABC. “If it ended with this summit, I would be very disappointed, but the meeting needs to continue. ”
Many have criticized President Trump after the summit for not condemning Kim Jong Un’s brutal treatment of his people, including torture and imprisonment in labor camps, according to the United Nations.
But Ji sees the summit as merely a first step that will lead to more conversation.
“I’m hopeful that North Korean human rights issues will be brought to the table once the summit progresses,” Ji told ABC News. “That doesn’t mean I’m certain that the summit itself will be smooth sailing. The North Korean government has long deceived its people, lied to the international community, and covered up human rights issues. We can’t trust them.”
After the summit, Trump called Kim “very talented” and said he “loves his country,” drawing more criticism for complimenting the ruthless dictator.
But Ji said the flattery is “a diplomatic gesture.” “I don’t think it necessarily means a whole lot to me,” Ji said.
He says living in North Korea with a disability was unbearable and meant certain poverty, so he crossed into China to find food. There, he was introduced to Christianity, and says he prayed in secret for years, keeping his outlawed religious beliefs from his own father and brother.
When Ji’s family attempted to defect, his father was captured and tortured to death. After Ji managed to make it to freedom in China, he kept his crutches as a reminder of how far he has come.
Now, Ji lives in Seoul and is the president of Now Action & Unity for Human Rights, which advocates for North Koreans. He recently visited Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers and receive an award for his work.
“I think the fact that not only the executive branch, but also the Congress and even the American public are very interested in human rights issues in North Korea really gives us a big strength to our cause,” Ji said.
As for his former leader, Ji says it’s “really pitiful” that Kim Jung Un’s objective in all of this is to protect his status.
“Right now, he doesn’t look anything more than a dictator desperately trying to keep his place. But the whole world is embracing democracy and human rights as important values, and I think it’s inevitable those values will reach where we are going.” Ji hopes that North Korea will eventually dissolve concentration camps and open borders for free business and investment, as well as immigration.
But not every defector is as hopeful about the summit as Ji.
Kang Cheol-Hwan, North Korea Strategy Center, Chairman
“Kim Jong Un is in love with his own power, not his country. He is someone who killed his own brother and uncle to gain political power. You think he loves the country? No way. Kim viciously killed a whole lot of people in order to maintain his power,” said Kang who describes President Trump’s comment about Kim Jong Un as truly caring for the country and his people, ‘obnoxious.’
Trump is being tricked by Kim who wants to keep all attention on denuclearization so that there won’t be any time or opportunity to raise the issue of human rights, Kang tells ABC News.
Kang was sent to a prison camp with his family at the age of 8. He was released ten years later then fled to Seoul in 1992. He is the author of “The Aquariums of Pyongyang (2000),” the first survivors account of North Korea’s concentration camps.
An Chan-il, World Institute for North Korean Studies, Director
An Chan-il diagnosed North Korea as a place where human rights were completely out of question. Although the international community is constantly shouting out loud, how the communist regime is treating its people outside the opulent capital city Pyongyang, inside, there isn’t anyone fighting for their rights. He said no one would fight to achieve their basic rights in North Korea, because they have become numb to the agony around them.
“Witnessing public execution and neighbors starving to death, they just cannot realize they are deprived of basic rights,” An told ABC News.
The defector expressed disappointment in President Trump’s press briefing after the US-North Korea summit.
“I expected Trump to raise his voice on human rights issue, but it seemed like he could only have mentioned a sentence or so,” he said. “Human rights situation in North Korea is not getting any better.”
According to his acquaintances still living in North Korea, there are children who die of food poisoning, after eating grass scraped off from the roads. Dozens of soldiers died from electrocution while trying to keep the construction site running as fast as possible in the town of Wonsan.
An escaped the communist country in late 1970’s, crossing the demilitarized zone. He became the first North Korean defector with a doctorate and now serves as chair-professor at Open Cyber University of Korea.
Song Ji-young, Jiwon Print and Publishing, PR manager
The Trump-Kim summit for Song Ji-young gave a glimpse of hope that someday in the near future she may be able to go back to her hometown in Hamkyungbukdo Province, North Korea. “I miss my home very much,” she says reminiscing her childhood. “We may have lived brainwashed in a controlled state but it was less stressful than here where everything is so competitive.”
“I was quite impressed by Kim Jong Un. He seemed much more prepared than Trump who looked like buttering up to a much younger Kim. I realized Kim is actually a smart man.”
Song says many of her fellow defectors see Kim in a favorable light. “He is different from his father Kim Jong Il who was a womanizer and indulged himself in luxury goods. Kim Jong Il never really talked in public but Kim Jong-un has a real wife, just one wife, and close to the people.”
Song was born after her parents were downgraded to a rural post. Her father, originally from a ‘pure’ enough background to reside in Pyongyang, had been punished for a car accident while driving. She worked at a propaganda arm of her hometown in Hamkyungbukdo as an announcer. Song fled to Seoul in 2004.
ABC News’ Matt McGarry, Jaesang Lee and Jiweon Park contributed to this report.