Kim Jong-un Isn’t Tough. North Koreans Are.

North Korean defectors protested in Seoul in May.CreditChung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
North Korean defectors protested in Seoul in May.CreditChung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Donald Trump is well known for liking people he thinks are tough. Not war heroes like Senator John McCain, or Gold Star parents like Khizr and Ghazala Khan, but authoritarians like Vladimir Putin of Russia, whom he’s hailed as a “strong leader,” or China’s president for life, Xi Jinping, “a good man” for whom the president has “great respect.”

Now the president has discovered a new figure of admiration.

In an interview that aired on Fox Wednesday evening, Bret Baier asked Mr. Trump about Kim Jong-un: “You sometimes call people killers. He is a killer. He’s clearly executing people,” said the Fox News anchor, all but spelling out the right answer for Mr. Trump.

Here’s how the president responded: “He’s a tough guy. Hey, when you take over a country, a tough country with tough people, and you take it over from your father I don’t care who you are, what you are, how much of an advantage you have. If you could do that at 27 years old, I mean, that’s 1 in 10,000 that could do that.”

Let’s talk, Mr. President, about toughness.

Tough is Yeonmi Park.

As a young child, Ms. Park believed that Kim Jong-il, Mr. Kim’s father, was so powerful that he could read her mind. At 9 years old she witnessed the public execution of her friend’s mother. The state had decided that death was the proper punishment for the crime of watching a Hollywood movie.

Like so many of her fellow citizens, Ms. Park resorted to eating insects to survive in a place she has called “a living hell.”

When Ms. Kim was 11 she wrote a will, sure she would die having gone days without food. Her father and grandparents had already died of starvation, and Ms. Kim had been left alone in a cold apartment after her mother and older sister had gone to search for something for the family to eat. “I wasn’t afraid of death. I had seen so many people dying during that time,” Ms. Kim has said.

After six days, her sister and mother returned with no food, but with a determination to survive. The three eventually escaped to China where they were sold by human traffickers. It took them nine years to reach safety in South Korea.

“In North Korea, we have eyes but we cannot see. We have ears but we cannot hear. We have mouths but we cannot say what’s wrong or right. But now I have found freedom, so I know how important it is,” Ms. Kim has said. She is using that freedom to insist that North Korea is a giant prison.

Tough is Hyeonseo Lee.

She witnessed her first public execution at 7 and watched people dying in the streets from starvation. At 17, Ms. Lee escaped the Hermit Kingdom by crossing the frozen Yalu River. After living underground in China for a decade, she managed to smuggle other members of her family out of the slave state.

Having grown up in a country with no freedom of movement, of speech, of thought, of religion, adjusting to a free life in South Korea, where she now lives, is a challenge. “To me, realizing freedom, democracy is really difficult. I’m still learning every day, every minute” she has said.

Tough, Mr. Trump, is Kang Chol Hwan.

In 1977, at 9 years old, after his grandfather was accused of treason, he was sent to the Yodok labor camp along with his younger sister, his grandmother, his father and his uncle. For 10 years he lived in a mud shack. He ate rats and cockroaches and worms. His fellow prisoners had tuberculosis and hepatitis. He was forced to watch public executions. He was beaten and tortured and, for a time, his forced labor included burying the corpses of other prisoners.

After his release from the gulag, he obtained a pirate radio and slowly began to learn about the outside world. In 1992, he escaped to China. Today Mr. Kang chairs the North Korea Strategy Center, which aims to expose the state’s evils and to bring freedom to the North Korean people.

Tough is Joseph Kim.

When Mr. Kim was a 13-year-old boy he watched his father starve to death. After his mother and sister escaped to China he became an orphan, living on the streets and surviving by eating wild plants and roasted grasshoppers. In 2006, he made his escape to China, feeling as if he had nothing to lose, because he knew he was likely to die of starvation if he remained.

In China, he was taken in by Christians who connected him to Liberty in North Korea, a California-based organization that helped him resettle in the United States, where today he is a student at Bard College and an activist for North Korean freedom.

Tough, Mr. Trump, is Oh Chong-song.

The North Korean soldier was shot several times by his fellow soldiers as he defected to South Korea in November by running across the Demilitarized Zone. The surgeon who saved his life in the South said his body was like a “broken jar” — ravaged not just by the bullet holes, but by giant parasites. In the hospital, plagued by nightmares that he was back in the North, Mr. Oh was comforted by a South Korean flag hung in his hospital room.

Tough, Mr. President, is Ji Seong-ho — a man you yourself praised at your State of the Union.

In 1996, during the height of the country’s great famine, Mr. Ji tried to steal some coal from a train in order to trade it for food. He was so weak, however, that he passed out during his mission and was hit by a passing train. He had to have his arm and leg amputated. Without anesthesia.

The double amputee escaped the North on wooden crutches, which he now holds aloft as he beseeches audiences to fight for freedom in North Korea.

These are a few of the names we know. What we don’t know are the names of the more than 25 million souls who are somehow managing to survive in this hell on earth ruled over by your new favorite tough guy.

Bari Weiss is a staff editor and writer for the Opinion section.

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