WHITE HOUSE - After phone calls with the leaders of Japan and South Korea, U.S. President Donald Trump spoke Friday in the Oval Office with a group of North Koreans who had escaped their repressive country.
"Their story is amazing," Trump said before asking the eight Koreans to speak about their ordeals. The president listened intently as they spoke for 20 minutes.
"We actually have two other people outside and they are literally afraid of execution — they didn't want to be with cameras," the president told reporters.
Those defectors who decided to appear on camera thanked Trump for highlighting North Korean human rights abuses. Trump addressed the subject during his speech last November in the South Korean National Assembly and in his State of the Union address last week.
Several appealed to Trump to do more.
Those who escape North Korea to China "would rather die and kill themselves than be repatriated to North Korea," said Lee Hyeon-soo, adding many carry poison with them in case they are caught.
"Please help us to stop the repatriations from China to North Korea," she implored Trump.
Lee added that "escaping North Korea is not like leaving another country, it's more like leaving another universe. I'll never truly be free of its gravity no matter how far my journey."
She told Trump that she fled an arranged marriage and a brothel in China.
Lee, now a student in South Korea, has written a memoir about her experience, The Girl with Seven Names.
Kim Kwang-jin, who was a banking agent in Singapore for the North Korean government and defected in 2003, told Trump his attention to the human rights issue "will be an inspiration" to many in his native country.
Ji Seong-ho, a double amputee who attended Trump's State of the Union address, where he stood to wave his old crutches when he received an ovation, told Trump: "I've been crying a lot these past few days since the speech, as I was so moved by the whole experience."
Ji also thanked the president "for paying attention and trying to help us."
Peter Jung, who escaped to China in 2000, told Trump he is now a broadcaster for the U.S.-government-supported Radio Free Asia, which — as does VOA — broadcasts to North Korea in the Korean language.
"I was very honored to become a United States citizen" last year, he told Trump.
The president, during the Oval Office meeting, refrained from making provocative comments about North Korea or its leader.
In the past, he has threatened to unleash "fire and fury" on the country — which is building nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles — and has belittled North Korea's leader as "Little Rocket Man."
During the meeting, Trump said, "We're doing a lot" regarding North Korea. "We have many administrations that should have acted on this a long time ago."
The president indicated his patience remains limited regarding North Korea's activities.
"We have no road left," Trump said.
"It's a very tricky situation," the president added. "We're going to find out how it goes, but we think the Olympics will go very nicely and, after that, who knows?"
South Korea, Japan efforts
Vice President Mike Pence will lead the official U.S. government delegation to the opening of the Winter Games next week in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Athletes from the North and South are to march together under a common flag and will put a unified women's hockey team on the ice.
A state of war has technically persisted on the Korean Peninsula since 1953, when the armies of China and North Korea signed an armistice with the United States and U.N. Command, which had defended the South during a three-year war.
North Korea has been under a totalitarian government since then. According to U.N. inquiries, the country's violations of human rights are widespread, grave and systematic, rising to the level of crimes against humanity.
In his phone call Friday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the U.S. president thanked him "for Japan's efforts to maintain international pressure on North Korea. This includes recent efforts to clamp down on North Korea's attempts to circumvent sanctions in the waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula," according to the White House. "Both leaders agreed on the need to intensify the international maximum pressure campaign to denuclearize North Korea."
They also discussed expanding Japan's missile defense capabilities, it said.
Trump, in a call with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, "discussed the importance of improving the human rights situation in North Korea and underscored their commitment to work together on this issue," according to a readout of the discussion issued by the White House.