President Donald Trump will meet North Korean defectors in the Oval Office today, a provocative action meant to highlight human rights violations and one that could raise alarms in Pyongyang.
Trump is expected to meet with up to eight defectors two days after he punctuated his State of the Union address by praising Ji Seong-ho, a defector from North Korea who had been invited to watch the address from the first lady's box. Ji will be among the group at the White House on Friday.
The visit will offer the president a chance to shine a spotlight on human rights abuses in North Korea at a time of growing tensions over Pyongyang's ongoing nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests.
"No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea," Trump said Tuesday night during the annual address to Congress. "North Korea's reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland."
The visit was arranged by Greg Scarlatoiu at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a person familiar with the meeting said. Trump has sought to highlight the human costs of dictator Kim Jong Un's regime, but foreign-policy experts warned that there are risks to such a strategy.
For years, the United States has tried to convince the Kim family to agree to drop its nuclear weapons program in exchange for negotiations to lift economic sanctions and potentially restore diplomatic relations. As part of that effort, past U.S. administrations have emphasized to North Korea that their goal is disarmament, not regime change.
Trump's administration has said that it is continuing that policy. But the president's increasing rhetoric and personal denunciations of Kim, including his pledges to use military force if necessary, have ramped up tensions on the peninsula. Experts said Trump's embrace of defectors could also be interpreted in Pyongyang as a threat.
"Meeting them in the Oval raises the question of whether the U.S. strategy is regime change," said one foreign-policy expert who specializes in East Asia. "It could reduce the incentive to negotiate and potentially undercut efforts [of cooperation] with China. The real question is: Is North Korea strategy changing?"
The White House had not disclosed Ji's appearance at the State of the Union ahead of time. Ji lost a leg and an arm after being hit by a train as a boy while scavenging for food during a nationwide famine. He eventually escaped to South Korea.
"Today he lives in Seoul, where he rescues other defectors, and broadcasts into North Korea what the regime fears the most — the truth," Trump said during his address to Congress. "Today he has a new leg, but Seong-ho, I understand you still keep those crutches as a reminder of how far you have come. Your great sacrifice is an inspiration to us all."
Ji lifted his crutches as the audience of lawmakers and other guests applauded, in one of the most emotional moments of the speech.
Aides to former president Barack Obama said they do not recall him meeting with defectors. Some of his top lieutenants, including former secretary of state John Kerry, did condemn North Korea's human rights record after a United Nations report in 2014.
Trump to meet with North Korean defectors in bid to raise pressure on Kim Jong Un
Experts warned the meeting could be interpreted as a threat by North Korea's ruling regime and make negotiations on nuclear weapons more difficult.