During his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Donald Trump spent several minutes speaking about two men who suffered horrifically in North Korea. Trump told the well-known, tragic story of Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student arrested in January 2016 in North Korea for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster. Not long after Pyongyang sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor, Warmbier fell into a coma; he died in the United States on June 19, 2017, six days after North Korea released him. “You are powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world,” Trump said to the nation and to Warmbier’s family, who sat in the audience. Trump then introduced 34-year-old North Korean Ji Seong Ho, who survived torture, starvation, and a crippling train accident before defecting in 2006. He is a “witness to the ominous nature of this regime,” Trump said.
Trump cited Warmbier and Ji to personalize Pyongyang’s iniquities, and, possibly, plant the emotional seeds for a military strike against North Korea. And yet, Ji and Warmbier’s experiences represent radically different facets of the regime: how it treats its own citizens, versus how it treats Americans. Ji’s experience in North Korea, while extraordinary, is not singular. His grandmother starved to death in the mid-90s, amid a famine that killed thousands, if not millions. Authorities tortured Ji after he returned from a trip to China, just as they’ve tortured thousands of his compatriots, including many of the more than 100,000 people Amnesty International estimates languish in four of North Korea’s known political prison camps.