WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump put a human face on the threat posed by North Korea in his State of the Union address Tuesday, sharing the powerful story of a defector now living in South Korea and the pain of parents who lost their child after his imprisonment.
In one of the most emotional moments of the evening, legislators cheered as defector Ji Seong-ho waved aloft the crutches he had used to escape North Korea after a train ran over his limbs.
Trump, who often fills his public remarks with superlatives about himself, instead put the spotlight Tuesday on the guests his team had invited to sit in the gallery with first lady Melania Trump. Trump described them as witnesses “to the ominous nature” of the North Korean regime as he pledged his resolve.
It was a very different approach for a president whose past remarks about North Korea have included taunting leader Kim Jong Un as “Little Rocket Man” and threatening to unleash “fire and fury” if Pyongyang escalates its nuclear program.
Trump described how, as a boy, a starving Ji lost consciousness while taking coal from a train car to barter for food during the country’s famine. Ji woke up as the train ran over his limbs, and he “endured multiple amputations without anything to dull the pain,” the president recounted. The White House said he lost his left hand and foot.
Trump described Ji’s siblings giving him what little food they had to help him recover while they instead ate dirt, stunting their growth. Trump said Ji was later tortured by North Korean authorities after returning from a brief trip to China, but eventually escaped.
“Seong-ho traveled thousands of miles on crutches all across China and Southeast Asia to freedom,” Trump said. He now has a new leg and works to resettle fellow defectors and broadcast information into North Korea. But Ji still keeps his crutches as a reminder of how far he’s come, Trump said.
After Trump told the story, Ji stood and waved the crutches triumphantly in a made-for-TV moment, his face filled with emotion.
Also among Trump’s guests: the parents of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who died of injuries suffered in North Korean custody. Fred and Cindy Warmbier, their faces pained and fighting back tears, stood and received a round of applause.
Their son spent 17 months in North Korean captivity before being released to the U.S. He died four days after his return.
“You are powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world, and your strength truly inspires us all,” Trump told them. “Tonight we pledge to honor Otto’s memory with total American resolve.”