Inside the hermit kingdom of North Korea people risk their lives for a chance at ‘normal’
I had just graduated from college when I was introduced to the most unusual opportunity to teach North Korean defectors at an alternative school in Seoul. Bansuk School takes its name from Kim Il Sung’s mother and means ‘solid rock’ in Korean. It is located in the heart of Gangnam, the epitome of Seoul’s extravagant and consumerist culture. I looked around the classroom, wedged between students stealthily checking their Samsung Galaxy smart phones and a bookcase filled with college entrance exam textbooks. During recess I asked one of my students what he liked most about being in South Korea. I expected an answer like ‘freedom’ but after a serious pause, he sheepishly said “fried chicken.” I laughed and told him that we should go get BBQ chicken after class some time.
In college I had spent several semesters doing extensive research on the interplay of international humanitarian law and the human rights crisis in North Korea. As I progressed through my final semester, my research led me to believe that the case for North Korean refugees, although only a tip of the iceberg, is a strong case founded in international law that could act as a gateway to the fundamental human rights issues of North Korea and ultimately help the North Korean people achieve their liberty in our lifetime.
The estimated number of 50,000 North Korean refugees hiding in China bear no connection to the regime. They are the people, the real face of North Korea, and the driving force of change. Yet the reality is that North Korean refugees in China live under constant fear of deportation which puts them at risk of extreme punishments including torture, detainment in political prison camps, and even execution. At least one out of every two North Korean defectors in South Korea testified to having re-escaped after repatriation. So as I stepped into the classroom with a dozen North Korean students sitting in folding chairs, some with deep wrinkles revealing the trace of time, I couldn’t help but divide the room and think that statistically at least half the students had endured brutal torture to have the chance to be where they were that day. I would learn later that one of my students only escaped the brutal beatings from North Korean prison guards because he was too small to be stomped on.
A lot of my perspective has changed after meeting the North Korean people outside of papers and charts. I no longer seek to merely classify North Korean defectors in China as refugees according to the 1951 Refugee Convention based on their well-founded fear of persecution; nor do I concede to China’s categorization of North Korean defectors as economic migrants, undeserving of refugee status. Instead, I realize that the North Korean people are both refugees and economic migrants — victims of enforced poverty — and wonder whether economic harm should also be a basis for refugee status.
I still remember an expression that a North Korean refugee used to describe himself. The term roughly translates to “people who lost pieces of life” in English. Life has many different stages and people develop the capacity to become members of the society by going through the different stages of life. But what happens if you miss out? What happens if you cannot learn to read, write, and speak when you are supposed to be actively learning? What happens if you have no food to eat when your body needs to grow? How would it affect you if you miss out on human affection, security, and stability during the most important phases of your life? Most of the things in life that I took for granted were privileges that my North Korean counterparts could never dream of having in real life.
As opposed to the valiant pursuers of freedom that the public remembers from literature, the North Koreans I meet every day are concerned with what they eat and their starving families back home. I recognize that our society has put a higher price tag on ideals such as freedom when words such as “famine” and “future” are equally significant. South Korea’s homogenous culture silently pressures North Korean defectors to lose their unique identity, but I found myself inspiring them to be proud of their life stories and untainted way of thinking. I wanted to convey to the North Korean people that I understood and empathized with their innate human desire to strive and fight for a better life.
Aside from having a long deceased grandfather who was born and raised in Pyongyang, I have no personal connections to North Korea. I have only identified myself as a North Korean once in my life in first grade in French school when I thought that ‘Nord’ meant ‘South’ and kept insisting that I came from ‘Coree du Nord’ to my teacher’s confusion and surprise. But having spent my childhood in multiple developing countries while constantly traveling with my parents for their work, I understand the difficulty of starting a home away from home. On the road in Vietnam, Thailand, and South Africa not only have I soaked in the details of my new surroundings but I have also committed myself to succeed in life to help solve real-world problems that I have witnessed. The world needs bright thinkers and active doers, who have the ability to remain intellectually curious and compassionate.
After having shared countless plates of fried chicken with North Koreans, I can no longer just shrug my shoulders over the fact that some people remain in rubble because they were never given the chance to succeed in life. Though I can only listen to a defector’s memory of spending indefinite months at an International Detention Center in Thailand, I know that I cannot remain distant or unaffected. The freedom that all human beings fundamentally pursue is the freedom to life — not just to live, but to live to the fullest. No one should be denied their means of sustaining a living by circumstances they have no control over.