For the second time in a row due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea Freedom Week was conducted online again in 2021 rather than in person. Under the overall theme of Open North Korea, the Isabella Foundation hosted the Open Borders segment on April 28 by interviewing four North Korean defectors who currently live in South Korea. Other organizations sponsored NKFW 2021’s two other segments: Open Hearts, and Open Minds. Additional event reports, videos, and transcripts are available at NKFW.org.
Ms. Kim Hee-yeon, the first speaker, escaped North Korea in 2014 and is now president of the Association for International North Korean Defector Women. Ms. Kim is particularly concerned about human rights for North Korean women and highlights how much many North Korean women defectors in South Korea still feel themselves in darkness and pain. In South Korea, defectors have more than enough food and electricity, which they didn’t have in the North, but it doesn’t mean they are living happy lives. Ms. Kim reminds us how they struggle to adapt to life in a new country, lonely, unable to be with their family and friends. Many ultimately regret their decision to come to South Korea. She referred to the tragic story of Ms. Han Sung-ok, a defector who starved to death with her young son in South Korea in 2019, apparently having run out of money to buy food.
Next, Dr. Lee Ae-ran, who defected in 1999 and is currently director of the Center for Free Unification Culture, continued the theme of human rights for North Korean women, emphasizing how much worse the suffering is for women than it is for men. North Korean women are regarded as little more than pigs in China, where many become victims of human trafficking, sexual violence, and slave-like labor. Women with babies or small children who escape North Korea face the added challenges of maintaining an adequate supply of diapers or preventing the babies from crying at inopportune times that could ensure their capture by Chinese police. And, after arriving in South Korea, their victimization continues. Dr. Lee elaborated on Kim Hee-yeon’s discussion of Han Sung-ok, the defector who starved to death with her son, explaining how she was physically abused by the Chinese father of her child. Unable to work and pay her electricity and phone bills, Han Sung-ok was “like a lonely island”, according to Dr. Lee, and ended up starving with her son.
Ms. Han Soo-ae grew up in Pyongyang and was employed at a liaison office for South Korea for two years before moving to Cambodia to work at a North Korean overseas restaurant there. In Cambodia, she met and fell in love with a South Korean man and in 2016 the two decided to escape, poison in hand, ready to die together if captured. “I ended up loving this guy more than Kim Jong Un!”, she exclaims, sounding amazed that such a thing was even possible.
Ms. Han reflected on her experiences with international humanitarian aid to North Korea. She remembers receiving UN cookies as a child and being told they were a gift from General Kim to help her behave and study harder. She believed “UN” was simply the brand name of the cookies. Later, she saw medicine for tuberculosis with the UN brand being delivered. It was personal for Ms. Han, whose younger sister had TB. But even though the TB medicine really was humanitarian aid because it was intended to help people suffering from tuberculosis, the North Korean people still had to pay for it, often at inflated prices. Ms. Han’s mother worked hard to earn money to purchase the medicine for her daughter, but even then, she couldn’t afford for her to take it consistently enough to cure her, leaving her permanently afflicted with the condition. Even now, Ms. Han wakes up in the middle of the night angry whenever she thinks about it.
Turning to the topic of rice donated by the South Korean government, Ms. Han recalls that it was very dark, not the clean white rice she became used to in South Korea, and determined the North Koreans switched out the original pure rice for bad grade rice. She concludes about receiving humanitarian aid: “So I can say, honestly, when was that? When was that? You gave us humanitarian aid? Because I haven’t experienced it once when I was in North Korea, so I just don’t know. I know the notion of it. But then I don’t know what it is, from my own experience.”
The final speaker, Mr. Lee Wi-ruk, discussed his personal recollections about growing up in an orphanage in North Hamgyong province. Mr. Lee entered the orphanage at age eight with his ten-year-old sister after his father, a policeman, was sent to a political concentration camp and his mother ended up being trafficked in China after she looked for work there in order to feed her children. After seven years in the orphanage, Mr. Lee served in the military and then defected to South Korea in 2010, where he is currently a PhD candidate in North Korean affairs at Dongkuk University.
Mr. Lee described a harrowing picture of daily brutality in the orphanage, where children died after being beaten by teachers or fighting with other children. Teachers escaped with impunity by reporting the deaths as by disease or for other reasons. Young girls were also often sexually abused, impregnated, and forced to have an abortion, abuses for which the girls themselves were blamed. Mr. Lee reports that the children welcomed opportunities to leave the orphanage grounds to farm in the fields or collect wood in the mountains, forced labor that ended up killing many of them, because they could enjoy food prepared outside the orphanage.
The Isabella Foundation thanks the four participants for their willingness to share their accounts with us and help make North Korea Freedom Week 2021 a success. The video for the event is below and transcripts are available at https://www.nkfw.org/history/2021/open-borders.