Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Guest Blogger: North Korean Defector


My first guest blogger today...I've asked Tasha to share a bit about the talk by a North Korean defector that was held this weekend. Before I made the decision to move to Korea, I never really paid much attention to North Korea. I knew that it was a severely poor country and that its strict dictatorship seemed to be the brunt of jokes from the rest of the world. It was only when a friend suggested I read the book Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, which i would strongly recommend, that I learnt about the horrifying things that the North Koreans had experienced. I always imagined such poverty to belong to a Dickensian London, or a third world country, not based in the 90s and 2000s by a country whose people have been unknowingly put in this position by an impossible ideology and a touch of stubborness. 

This weekend was a busy one but a few of us made time to go to a lecture at Pusan National University on Saturday afternoon to see a talk by a recent North Korean defector now living in South Korea. Sadly Maddie didn't make it on time so she asked me to do a bit of a report (it's actually been like a school assignment with a proper deadline and everything!) - I am not the talented blogger in this duo so apologies for the rambling account to follow!

It was a long sweaty trek to find the building where the talk was taking place - Korea's infamously bad sign-posting was on form and we were forced to stalk some other Waegooks in the hope that they were there for the same reason as us. Despite somehow losing sight of the precious foreigners we managed to navigate the sprawling campus and arrived at the lecture theatre bang on time. This meant we got seats, but only just as the room filled up and people were forced to stand at the back.

There was an overwhelmingly foreign presence in the room and the lecture was introduced by a British human rights activist who gave a brief summary of the current situation in North Korea, then showed a video containing shocking images of emaciated children and people lying dead in the street. Immediately after this "Miss Kim" (a false name to protect her identity) was brought on to the stage with her translator to begin. I thought the timing was a little insensitive and she was understandably in a bit of a state by the time she reached the podium - I think it would have been a bit more appropriate to give her a minute to compose herself after watching the traumatising scenes that she has actually experienced, but she managed really well.

Through her tears Miss Kim briefly told her story. She described her childhood as normal and happy until the Arduous March (the name given to the famine during the 90s) when she spent most of her teenage years in a constant state of extreme hunger and was forced to live off foliage that she found in the forest in order to survive. She spoke of her parents‘ jobs; how at one point her father worked without pay for 4 years and then was made redundant, eventually dying at the age of 60. This was what made Miss Kim decide to leave, as her mother and sister had also fled. She still doesn't know what has become of them.

After the talk it was over to the audience to ask questions. Miss Kim wasn't able to say much about how she escaped; detailing only that she obtained a visa to visit another area of North Korea under the pretense she was visiting a family member, then crossed the river into China where she spent 2 weeks hiding from the Chinese security forces and travelling through the mountains. Having left in October 2011 and only being in South Korea for 2 months we could only imagine where else she had been and what she went through.

When asked what the biggest difference between North and South Korea was, she replied that in N Korea the country comes first and people come second, but here (and elsewhere) it is the individual that comes first and the country comes after. Miss Kim said that in S Korea a baby is born to be beloved - this was a sentiment she found totally alien and remarkable.

What struck me most was when Miss Kim explained that in N Korea if you have a dream you know you will never achieve it, so there is no point in having one. Everything is pre-determined for you at birth (depending on the behaviour of your family you are put into one of the three classes - loyal/wavering/hostile - and you are assigned your job, told who you can marry and basically have no choice in anything you do). The idea that other people have the ability to have a dream and persue it was the most amazing thing to her and made me realise how often we overlook that simple privilege in everyday life.

When someone asked Miss Kim what she wanted to do now it was incredibly saddening to hear that she has no idea what she actually wants or likes, and at the age of 29 she is only just learning about herself so that she can discover what her dream is and try to achieve it.

It was interesting to hear that the foreign aid being sent to N Korea (in the form of rice and medicine) is basically useless because it is immediately seized and sold for profit, rather than benefiting the poor and starving population. Miss Kim said the only thing that really helps the people is the illegal smuggling into the country of movies, music, TV shows and anything else that shows them what it is like for the rest of the world and gives them hope and a reason to try to leave. It makes you realise that as much as foreign countries try to help it seems we never really know what will actually be of assistance.

There are no photos to go with this blog entry because we were all told before Miss Kim came on stage that under no circumstances should anyone take a picture. This is because if anyone in N Korea was to find out that Miss Kim had left, her entire family would be executed as punishment. Infuriatingly some ignorant people in the audience still felt the need to take photos of her and I can only hope they weren't stupid enough to share them on Facebook.

Having achieved our cultural aim for the weekend we headed back to the main area of PNU for lunch and beers, but the lecture certainly gave me a lot to think about. The saddest thing is that there doesn't seem to be much anyone can do to help or intervene, except hope for reunification of the Koreas one day like the rest of the North Korean population.