Last Summer, BHRR reporter Sarah Sangah Suh sat down with a North Korean defector to discuss the current political and human rights situation in the Koreas. In this exclusive interview, Suh evokes the arduous details of her subject’s personal account and also provides insight and analysis into the historic and present conflict in the region.
[Editors Note: So-young Kim is an alias used in order to protect the privacy of the interviewee. Also The interview was conducted in Korean and was translated by the author.]
So-young Kim is a senior studying International Relations at Yonsei University, one of the most prestigious schools in South Korea. She serves as the Chief Executive of a student-run, non-governmental organization that promotes youth leadership, and after graduation she plans to pursue a graduate degree in Education. She does not seem different from most university students, but her story is anything but ordinary. So-young Kim is one of the two million North Korean defectors living in South Korea who left the world’s most isolated country for a better future. Although her story represents just a sliver of a much larger political struggle, it offers insight into the political obstacles in the Koreas and human rights violations in general.
So-young’s journey to South Korea was not an easy process. It required four attempts, and each time she failed, she was deported back to the North. Her first attempt was in 1998 when she was merely 10 years old. Although she belonged to a middle-class family, it was still difficult to make ends meet in a poverty-stricken country. At the time of her first escape attempt, North Korea was in the grip of widespread famine—the Arduous March—during which the nation’s food distribution system completely collapsed and an estimated two million North Koreans, 10 percent of the population, perished.
So-young recalls that it was common to see several kotchebis, a term for homeless children from North Korea, lying dead on the street from starvation. She says the famine made people indifferent towards death. “In a situation like that,” she says, “You accept it as it is. I thought the kotchebis starved to death because they were meant to be dead and there was nothing we could do about it. No one felt pity for the dead homeless children because starvation and death were the norm.” When her parents got divorced, her mother decided to escape to China where her relatives lived. They had to bribe the border patrols in order to cross the freezing Tumen River under the cover of absolute darkness to avoid capture.
Unfortunately, she and her mother were captured two years later and sent back to North Korea against their will. The next six months, they were held at an internment camp in Shinuiju. Despite this setback, So-young and her family continued striving for freedom. It was an arduous eight year process marked by three detainments that finally ended in success in 2006. “I was lucky,” remarks So-young, “I was under-aged so they did not treat me as harshly as they did the grown-ups. After spending significant time in an internment camp, my relatives would bribe the guards to free me.” Most defectors did not have that luxury. Until the late 90s, defectors faced public execution or a lifetime of forced labor in interment camps. As a result of rapidly increasing number of defectors and improvements in North-South relations, however, the situation has improved dramatically. Defectors were not punished as harshly, and border patrols abated.
Each time So-young was captured by the border guards, she was strip-searched and denied any sort of human rights protection such as due process. This experience gave her a unique point of view on the subject: “I think human rights are relative. After learning about rights and privacy, I now know that what they did to me was a violation of both. At the time, because everyone was forced to undergo such treatment, I was not particularly ashamed of it, nor did I feel abused. ”
Her personal struggle speaks not only to the struggle in Korea but also to the danger of institutionalized violence and geopolitical isolation across the globe. She continues, “this also illustrates the extent to which North Koreans are brainwashed, as commonly depicted in the Western media because the country is so isolated and every aspect of life is controlled, people are not even aware what they are being deprived of.”
Unfortunately, the human rights situation in North Korea worsened after the currency reform of 2009. The government’s dramatic revaluation of the currency destroyed citizen’s buying power and forced people out into the streets. The domestic economy remains a huge problem ,and North Korean society, ripe with social problems. The nation is more corrupted and divided than ever before. The elite enjoy smuggled luxury goods from the illicit trade of drugs and arms, while the majority of the population suffers from starvation and poverty. The large income gap has led to a new series of problems in public health and education. So-young argues that “North Koreans of my generation who were supposed to go to school during the 90s were deprived of education because of the famine.” Although malnutrition has not disappeared entirely, youth face new, equally dangerous obstacles: “A newly emerging problem in North Korea,” So-young claims, “is drug addiction among the youth.” One can only imagine what the implications of a growing drug trade in a poverty-stricken nation will be.
So-young hopes that someday she will be able to return to North Korea to share the personal and academic education she received in South Korea. She argues that it is not a question of if but how and when North Korea will open up and enact necessary reforms. During this process, So-young sees the US playing a vital role: “What is important is the role of the United States. When the U.S. exerted pressure on North Korea to improve the human rights situation with a number of sanctions in the early 2000s, the situation definitely got better.” According to So-young, South Korea cannot bear the burden alone—it will require a concerted, international effort spearheaded by the U.S..
When asked about any possibility of grass roots mobilization against the authoritative regime similar to what we are witnessed in the Middle East, she is pessimistic: “The North Korean people do not have the capacity to mobilize for demonstrations or democratization.” She maintains that “Fundamental changes to the human rights situation in North Korea can only be achieved by changes in the regime.” She emphasizes, “Only the U.S. can bring those changes.” The message could not be clearer: the responsibility is ours, and until we take action, North Koreans will continue to live stories similar to So-young’s.
 Lee, May (1998-08-19). “Famine may have killed 2 million in North Korea”. CNN. (http://web.archive.org/web/20070209071653/http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/asiapcf/9808/19/nkorea.famine/)
 Congressional Research Service, North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation, Emma Chanlett-Avery, June 17, 2011 , www.fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/R41259.pdf
[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Fresh888]