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In a private dinner Thursday night, the former President George W. Bush was critical of President Donald Trump’s decision to place added travel restrictions on North Korea as part of his administration’s revised travel ban, a source present at the dinner told Business Insider.
The source told Business Insider that Bush suggested the policy would discourage dissidents and defectors from seeking to flee the reclusive country.
Bush said the US needed to encourage such pursuits and contrasted North Korea’s addition to the travel ban with the North Korean Human Rights Act that Bush signed in 2004, the source said. The law offered support for North Korean human-rights groups and dissidents.
The comments came during a question-and-answer session led by Victor Cha, who served as Bush’s top adviser on North Korea and is widely expected to be Trump’s pick for US ambassador to South Korea.
Bush was speaking at The Korea Society’s annual dinner in New York City, which featured more than 400 guests, the source said. Bush was being honored with The Korea Society’s Van Fleet Award.
Freddy Ford, a spokesman for Bush, told Business Insider on Friday that the former president did not address Trump or the travel ban in his remarks at the private New York City dinner. But he said Bush discussed, “in broader strokes, welcoming and supporting dissidents, as he has for years, and referred to the Bush Institute’s longstanding and ongoing work in that area.”
Two additional people present at the event declined to comment on Bush’s remarks, citing Bush’s request for the dinner to be off the record.
The Trump administration on Sunday added North Korea, along with Venezuela and Chad, to its list of countries whose citizens would be barred from entering the US.
“North Korea does not cooperate with the United States government in any respect and fails to satisfy all information-sharing requirements,” the revised travel restrictions said. “The entry into the United States of nationals of North Korea as immigrants and nonimmigrants is hereby suspended.”
But experts were quick to say that relatively few North Koreans are even capable of traveling to the US in the first place, a point an administration official acknowledged in a background briefing on the revised restrictions.
“They should have checked if there is North Korean immigration before they banned it,” John Delury, an associate professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, told The Washington Post. “Why are you banning something that doesn’t exist?”
“There’s no logic in the North Korea context, so we can conclude this is not really about North Korea,” Delury said. “This is not part of real North Korea policy at all.”
The source said Bush was also asked at the dinner whether he thought the Korean Peninsula would ever reunify.
“I’m 71,” Bush said, according to the source. “So, not in my lifetime.”
Ford told Business Insider that Bush’s reunification comment “was only a joke about his advancing age.”
North Korea-US relations have been at the forefront of the global discussion in recent months. North Korea recently threatened to shoot down a US bomber after Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea during a recent speech before the United Nations General Assembly.
Trump has also insisted in recent weeks on calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man,” a reference to his frequent missile tests, which have sent tremors through governments across the world as leaders seek to resolve the escalating nuclear episode.
Bush famously included North Korea in his “axis of evil” – along with Iran and Iraq – in his 2002 State of the Union address.