Bittersweet longing: Fighting for North Korean human rights in South Korea
“South Koreans will especially face these questions from North Koreans–what did you know, and what did you do to help us?” declares Suzanne Scholte, Chairman of the North Korean Freedom Coalition. Her voice sounds assertive and confident, the aural equivalent of her blonde bob on an outdoor screen. A Korean woman standing to the right interprets on her behalf.
For a national rally, we are a small number, no more than 200 or so, gathered in the plaza at Seoul Station to commemorate North Korea Freedom Week. It’s drizzly and damp out, though I suspect weather alone isn’t reason enough to explain the lack of supporters. Stacks of white plastic chairs stay piled high, while streams of evening shoppers leaving Lotte Mart and businessmen carrying briefcases walk past, tossing casual glances our way.
Ex-military members fill the first five rows of seating, while the rest are occupied by groups of older Korean women who carry yellow posters that read, “Stop three generations of automatic power!” below a picture of a pig. In place of the pig’s face is a photo of Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jung Eun.
Other groups of non-profits that have traveled from the U.S. for the week’s events are scattered throughout the square, draped in ponchos. Behind them loom glass skyscrapers and giant neon logos for Smoothie King and Pizza Hut. I spend the hour snapping picture after picture, circling the crowd.
Waiting for the candlelight vigil to begin, I duck into a nearby 7-11 to join a human huddle that slurps cups of steaming ramen. When I go back outside, a Korean woman in camouflage is singing, “Freedom is more important than life itself. Stand up and fight, North Koreans, sons and daughters of our country.” Her voice swells in a grand soprano. I can’t even understand most of the lyrics I’m hearing, but I feel tense and somber.
Taxis speed by a 10-foot-tall inflatable column to the right of the stage. Printed onto the top of the column is the unmistakable grimace of Kim Jong Il. I watch as a sudden gust knocks the column to the ground. It bobs in the breeze before rising again slowly, the dictator’s face aglow in a sea of waving candles.
During my early days exploring Insadong, one of the city’s traditional tourist traps, I was surprised when an American handed me a flier about the state of human rights in North Korea. In addition to being a white guy in Asia, he looked particularly out of place among the usual street vendors peddling snacks and handicrafts. He stood with a handful of Americans and Koreans among several large posterboards that displayed pictures of skeletal children. Curious, I asked him what kind of reaction he usually got from South Koreans he approached.
“They’re surprised to see a foreigner standing there,” he admitted. “They won’t get involved, but they say, ‘Thank you for doing this.’”
He introduced himself as Dan, the International Campaign Director of Justice for North Korea (JFNK), a grassroots activist organization. I pushed on—had he ever had any unpleasant experiences? Wasn’t the topic of reunification a controversial one?
“I care about human rights in North Korea,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean ‘reunification’.”
Apparently, it was a common misconception.
“We get some strong reactions from the street campaign,” Dan acknowledged, and described a former clash with an older Korean man, “who was probably of the sunshine policy and very much in our face.”
The Sunshine Policy started in 1998 under President Kim Dae Jung, resulting in an inter-Korean summit with Kim Jong Il in 2000. Instead of pushing for immediate reunification through the collapse of the North, the Sunshine Policy encourages a more gentle integration to break North Korea’s isolation. The term is originally derived from Aesop’s Fables, in which the Sun wins an argument with the North Wind about which is stronger. The story’s moral that “persuasion is better than force” is the underlying philosophy of the Sunshine Policy, which aims to achieve peaceful coexistence between the two Koreas “through reconciliation, cooperation, and mutual exchange.” Under this policy, South Korea has provided substantial economic and diplomatic aid to North Korea in order to better its relationship and to achieve political stability under present conditions.
One aspect of the Sunshine Policy involved censoring talk of human rights violations to avoid threatening the North-South relationship and to maintain engagement with North Korea. Kim Dae Jung’s avoidance of addressing human rights issues in the North set the tone for Sunshine era. Many South Koreans felt hostile towards the George Bush administration for its strong stance against North Korea, fearing that condemning the regime would lead to conflict.
The Sunshine Policy came to an end under South Korea’s current conservative administration run by President Lee Myung Bak, who opposed providing aid to the North while it was developing nuclear weapons. Last year’s incidents involving the sinking of the navy corvette Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island also did much to cool inter-Korean relations. South Korea stopped most cross-border trade and severed all economic ties to North Korea, demanding it to own up to the unprovoked attacks and the death of 50 people.
For average citizens, the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island incidents challenged their belief that improving North-South relations through the Sunshine Policy would eventually lead to reunification. For these reasons, the question of how to improve human rights in North Korea remains one of the most polarizing and controversial issues among South Koreans. The North Korean Human Rights Act (NKHRA), for example, is a bill that has been stalled in the National Assembly since last year due to opposition from liberal parties, who view bringing light to the issue as threatening to North Korea. Under the NKHR Act, an independent body would monitor North Korean human rights and offer support to activists in the South. The U.S. and Japan passed their own versions of the bill in 2006.
Dan recalled how the man had criticized the group’s posters that depicted human rights atrocities, claiming the photos of starved North Korean victims were taken over ten years ago, during the famine of the 90’s.
“I couldn’t catch the rest of what he said,” continued Dan. “But he kept repeating, weh guk sah lam.”
Although weh guk sah lam isn’t a derogatory term—it simply means “foreigner”— I wondered about the old man’s aggravation towards the sight of an outsider getting involved in national politics. When activist slogans claim, “Silence Kills North Koreans,” where is the boundary for foreigners to remain silent?
Growing up, the only knowledge I had of North Korea came from a paperback chapter book about a girl who fled from Pyongyang by crawling under a barbed-wire fence. When it came to South Korean history, though, what stuck in my mind were family stories about Korea’s drawn-out struggle for independence, such as the March 1st Independence Movement in 1919. Since 1910, Japan had ruled the Korean peninsula—35 years of colonization that expunged Korea’s resources to feed the Japanese imperial war machine, and tried to root out all elements of Korean culture from society, forcing people to adopt Japanese names and convert to the native Japanese’ Shinto religion, and forbidding the use of Korean language at schools and workplaces.
The three percent of Japanese residents in Korea controlled critical government and economic roles, and nearly eighty percent of Koreans could neither read nor write.
On the afternoon of March 1, 1919, my great-grandfather, Chung Jae Yong, read the Declaration of Korean Independence in Pagoda Park, as a mass of people shouted, “Long live independent Korea!” and marched across Seoul with their Taegukki national flags. More than 2 million Korean people participated in over 1,500 nationwide uprisings. The March 1 Independence Movement, the biggest demonstration movement of Korean resistance, resulted in the maiming and death of tens of thousands; Chung Jae Yong was just one of many independence activists tortured by the Japanese.
Korea declared itself free from colonial rule on August 15, 1945, with Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II. In the midst of anti-Japanese sentiment, a number of independent political factions were competing for power, including Communism. Days before the Japanese surrendered, however, the U.S. decided on the 38th parallel, a decision which originated from a secret meeting at Yalta that had taken place in February between President Roosevelt, Marshall Stalin, and Winston Churchill, during which the U.S. struck a deal with the Soviets to fight Japan in Manchuria and Korea in exchange for certain concessions.
The Yalta Conference, however, didn’t specify how south the Soviet army should march, only that there should be a trusteeship government established to temporarily rule Korea. Roosevelt felt that though the Koreans were not ready for self-government, Korea would become “free and independent in due course.” Nearly all Koreans immediately opposed the trusteeship proposal.
As Soviets rushed into Manchuria and then Korea, the U.S. feared that surrendering the entire Korean peninsula would eventually lead to Soviet occupation of Japan for their sphere of interest. U.S. colonels Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel were directed to find a place to halt the Soviets. In a time crunch with scarce knowledge of Korean geography and zero input from the Korean people, they deemed the 38th parallel a fair division, as it divided the land roughly in the middle while keeping the capital of Seoul within U.S. control.
U.S. occupation started on September 8—less than one month after Korea’s self-proclaimed freedom.
Although the demarcation was meant to be temporary, U.S.-Soviet relations worsened and neither side wanted the other to take over the peninsula. Two separate governments began to emerge—one led by Kim Il Sung in the North and another led by Syngman Rhee in the South—each unofficially backed by the Soviets and the U.S., and both claiming to be Korea’s legitimate government. Although Sung was a communist, anti-Japanese guerilla fighter and Rhee was an anti-communist conservative who’d been a leader in Korean independence movements abroad, both were Korean nationalists and believed military force was necessary to reunify the peninsula.
In February 1946, the Provisional People’s Committee for North Korea was formed by Sung. As talks between the U.S. and Soviets broke down, the U.S. turned to the U.N. the following year in 1947 and received permission to hold general elections in Korea to create a government across both zones. Since the Soviets refused to comply and denied the U.N. Commission access to prepare for nationwide elections, elections were authorized only in the areas where U.N. Commission members were allowed entry.
In July 1948, Rhee won the election for presidency, and on August 15, the Republic of Korea (ROK) was officially established and recognized by the U.N. as the legitimate government of Korea. Following suit on September 9, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was recognized by communist countries as the legitimate government of North Korea.
On June 25, 1950, northern troops with Soviet support stormed across the border to start the first armed conflict of the Cold War era. North Korea had a well-trained, well-equipped army of 90,000; South Korea’s 50,000-member army was poorly trained, and largely unequipped and unarmed. Although South Korea itself was not seen as being of strategic importance, the U.S. saw this invasion as a blatant defiance against the boundary sanctioned by the U.N., and feared the spread of communism throughout Asia. The U.S. and the U.N. decided to support the South, while China aided Russian forces in the North.
Three years and the death of some four million Koreans and 33,000 Americans later, an armistice restored the border near the 38th parallel, resulting in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Hundreds of thousands of Koreans found themselves separated from their families and on the opposite side of the 38th parallel.
A 155-mile long, 2.5-mile wide buffer zone, the DMZ is known today as “the world’s most heavily armed border”. The North and the South are still technically at war, never having signed an official ceasefire.
Today, approximately 30,000 U.S. troops are still stationed in South Korea.
As a kyopo, or the term used for those of Korean descent living abroad, I am technically not considered a weh guk sah lam. Being U.S. born and bred, I am seen as neither quite South Korean nor quite American; the legacy of a kyopo is split into two. My ambivalence towards expat activism stems from the duality of this identity. I don’t want to be that self-righteous, condescending American who tells South Koreans what they should do, how they should feel, what they should care about. Yet that is often how I feel when acknowledging the reality that many South Koreans feel indifference towards matters up North.
Despite the fact that what I knew about North Korea came from a handful of articles and documentaries I’d seen prior to my arrival in Seoul, I landed convinced I wanted to help. An initial Google search led me to find “Helping Hands Korea,” a Christian-based NGO led by director Tim Peters that provides famine relief to North Korea, as well as support to North Korean refugees in China. When I joined the group’s weekly meeting, Tim shared photos from his recent visit to an orphanage in China. Surrounded by the soft lilt of Midwestern voices, gazing at a tapestry backdrop of Jesus and his disciples at “The Last Supper,” I felt like I’d been transported to the suburbs. The nearby pile of savory Korean snacks looked colorful and out of place. Tim and his wife, who was South Korean, were kind, encouraging me to ask questions. By Tim’s estimates, more than 80% of his organization’s funding came from Europe, with 10% from the U.S., and 5% from South Korea.
“Foreigners can’t keep doing it themselves,” he said. “It’s not sustainable.”
Despite a growing number of South Korean organizations championing North Korean human rights, veteran locals I’d met in seasoned activist circles attested to the overwhelming apathy of their countrymen. At a volunteer orientation session run by Justice For North Korea, only six of the 25 or so new members were South Korean. The all-day event included lectures from a host of organizations, offering a comprehensive crash course for those of us—Korean Americans, white Americans, Europeans, South Koreans—who’d arrived with a cursory understanding of human rights in the DPRK.
Sang Hun Kim, representing the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, explained the NGO’s mission to investigate and collect testimonies from North Korean defectors to serve as evidence to bring forth to the U.N. Security Council. Previous efforts to establish a government-supported North Korean human rights record depository had been rejected for fear it “would obstruct inter-Korean peace and cooperation.”
“You must shout,” Sang Hun said. “But shouting won’t do anything.” In his 15 years working in human rights, he had never seen his fellow South Koreans asking about how to help, lamenting, “They have absolutely no interest in the situation…I think South Koreans someday will have to be punished for not doing anything. For not having helped their brothers and sisters.”
The founder and director of JFNK, Peter Jung, told us about crimes of the boh-ui-boo, or North Korean intelligence agency. Peter, who was imprisoned a year and a half in China for assisting defectors, continues to personally help them escape through China and Vietnam. Those who are caught, he explained, face severe penalty at North Korean prison camps. Many die due to the combination of malnutrition and forced labor of dragging tree logs and carrying 20 kg blocks. Some officers even examine women’s “virginal parts,” suspicious they might be hiding money inside of their vagina.
As he shared a book of illustrations showing the brutal torture occurring at North Korean prison camps, we gaped at sketches of people being stripped naked and beaten with sticks; suffering while their hands and legs were cut off; eating snakes and mice amongst piles of rotting corpses; running in place to stay alive while locked in a freezing room.
In one scene, a clearly pregnant woman lay flat with her back on the ground, a wooden board balanced on the top of her swelling stomach. At an officer’s command, a man jumped on top of the board to smash her baby.
I’d assumed that South Koreans might have already been exposed to such images, but another volunteer told me, “As a South Korean, I can tell you that very few have the opportunity to see the types of images you saw today.”
During the break session, I eyed a tan Korean guy in a crisp, light blue blazer standing off to the side. Approaching the microphone, he introduced himself as a colleague of Dan’s at an NGO called the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights. He was also a North Korean defector who had come to share his story with us, saying, “I always felt like Dan has nothing to do with North Korea…[but it’s as if he cares] more than I care. So I feel grateful…Thank you for taking interest in us, when South Koreans don’t.”
“People are really not concerned when it comes to the north,” said Yurim, a South Korean college student interning at the Ministry of Unification who I’d met outside of the session. First established in 1969, the Ministry of Unification is a government branch that works toward reunification by promoting inter-Korean dialogue, exchanges, and cooperation.
“It’s common for people to say they want reunification,” she said. “But a lot of [South] Koreans don’t think it’s good, mainly for economic reasons. Also, North Korea is the enemy. Most of my friends are against it.”
Since the peninsula was split over 60 years ago, people across the border are connected by genealogy alone. Without memories of the war or direct ties to immediate family members, many younger South Koreans feel not just a geographical and ideological division, but also an emotional distance from people in the north.
Although North Korea was actually more economically prosperous than South Korea during the ‘60s and ‘70s, South Korea has since grown from one of the poorest countries in Asia to one of its wealthiest. Despite its physical proximity to South Korea, North Korea has become a foreign and unfamiliar presence for many of post-war generations.
Like most Korean families, mine had also experienced the separation of war. Prior to the war, my late paternal grandfather left his hometown of Haeju in the southwest of North Korea to attend Seoul National University. When he graduated in 1948, he moved further south of Seoul—two years before the war broke out. I vaguely remembered hearing he had brothers who had stayed North, but how many of them, and what had happened to them?
Across the miles over Skype, even my father couldn’t be sure—something like three or four, he guessed. Grandpa had never mentioned much, and my father, having been born during the war, was too young to remember. As a member of the intelligentsia, one sibling might have subscribed to Marxism-Leninism, my father speculated, and thus voluntarily chosen to move North. The other two brothers had been professors at Seoul National University; my father guessed they might have been among the many who were abducted and forced to go to North Korea at the start of the war.
After the war when the border was looser, however, one of the brothers who had stayed in Haeju paid a guide to help him escape to the South. He’d brought with him one child, while leaving his other children behind. “If I knew who they were, I might have more of an emotional attachment,” my father said, referring to his cousins in the North. “But I have no idea.”
On a visit to my grandmother, I was surprised when she showed me a book containing a black-and-white photo of her husband as a child. In the portrait, he stands as one of six siblings—one of whom is a girl who died while young. Only two of the brothers stayed in the South, my grandmother told me. When I questioned her about the other three brothers, she shrugs plainly: “I don’t know.”
I wanted to ask her more in my crude Korean, but I couldn’t sort exactly what it was I wanted to know even in English. At what point all of the details became fuzzy, when sorrow turned into detachment, weren’t things she could tell me. I could only interpret this loss of family history as a remnant of trauma, and my grandfather’s silence as a way of coping, a means of emotional distance.
Was there a point in caring or wondering about these people, even now? How was it possible to grieve for ancestors I never knew? The faces in the photograph offered few answers, but I took the book home anyway.
With a group of 20 others, I focused my camera lens on the stoic-faced South Korean soldier guarding the JSA. The Joint Security Area, known as the JSA, is a building where diplomatic discussions between the two countries are held; it is the only area of the DMZ within the city of Paju where South Korean and North Korean forces stand face-to-face. Although I’d circled it as a must-see destination in my Lonely Planet guidebook, South Korean civilians can only enter the JSA with special permission.
I’d nearly visited the area three months before, having heard of a “balloon launch” sending anti-North propaganda leaflets to North Korea from Imjingak, one of Paju’s small towns located just seven kilometers from the border. I had never heard of this tactic before and considered joining for the commemorative launch, imagining a handful of pastel-colored balloons peacefully ascending into a blue, sunny sky. Instead, it rained, and the launch was postponed.
It never occurred to me that these balloon launches might be considered acts of war. Later I learned that local residents had voiced their concerns, claiming recent confrontations between balloon launchers and Sunshine-policy supporters had affected their businesses, tourism to the area, and sense of safety. In April of this year, North Korea even threatened to “mercilessly” shell the border towns if the balloon launchings continued.
I felt ashamed by how close I had come to blindly inserting myself in an activity with the potential to endanger the lives of people near the border. It was just proof of how much I had to learn about my new surroundings, and the inherent limits of my knowledge as a newly arrived foreigner. After all, since I wasn’t fluent enough to understand all of Korean media, most of my news came from the English-language daily. Conversing with Korean activists in their native tongue still felt stiff, my words carefully constructed and calculated; interacting with other English-speaking foreigners put me more at ease.
But more than simply language itself, my lack of understanding seemed to root from a significant cultural gap. Although I’d been fed the American narrative of the Korean War, I hadn’t grown up in a society that directly pitted North Korea as the “hostile enemy,” a phrase repeatedly used by the South Korean DMZ tour guide. The tour was effective at making threats from an oft-ridiculed, hermetic country like North Korea seem real.
Trudging through “The 3rd Tunnel”—the largest of five known infiltration tunnels dug by the North Koreans to invade the South, I was nervous. According to my brochure, the 1,635 meter-length cavernous space is large enough in scale for “an army of 30,000 fully armed North Korean soldiers” to pass through within one hour. Navigating the dimly lit, cavernous space, my body tensed at even the water droplets that hit my hardhat and slid onto my back.
I could see everything as simplistic. I had no idea what reunification might entail, nor would my life be affected if the South Korean economy couldn’t absorb its cost, estimated from a few hundred billion to up to several trillion dollars. My perspective as an outsider, of course, allowed me the vantage point from which to chastise South Koreans for being too “complacent.”
As a privileged traveler who’d come to this country on my own terms, I was afforded the time and means to create an artificial, leisurely life of sorts—one atypical of that of the average South Korean. And though I hated to admit it, being Korean American didn’t make me any less of a tourist. I was someone who had paid to visit the border, free to peruse a number of gift shops full of toenail clippers imprinted with “DMZ” and “limited edition” plaques framing knots of “genuine” barbed wire fence, slapped with serial numbers.
Yet I was mad for all kinds of reasons.
I was infuriated by how the tour seems to reduce the war to a spectacle. I felt like I was on a bizarre wildlife expedition when the guide pointed out rare species of floral fauna in our jeep and led us through an exhibit devoted to the DMZ as a nature preserve. I felt ridiculous taking a group picture in front of giant, purple-colored block letters spelling, “DMZ.” I was perplexed watching a video narrated by a jolly voice claiming reunification to happen “someday,” but until then, “The DMZ is forever.” I rolled my eyes overhearing two non-Korean American passengers on the bus refer to the trip as another stop on their “Asia tour.” I was irritated by the corny jokes cracked by the Latino U.S. officer, who swaggered around as our camouflaged tour guide.
I felt they were interfering with a journey that for me, felt personal. I assumed they couldn’t possibly understand all of the pain associated with the war. But perhaps what I was more frustrated by were the limits to which I could understand it as well. I wondered what right I had to feel upset about a trauma from which I was spared.
Bruce Cumings, a leading expert on North Korean and East Asian affairs, offers a leftist, revisionist history of the Korean War, describing it as a civil war with complicated historical roots that the U.S. had little business in interfering.
He compares the U.S. bombing of North Korea to genocide, revealing that the U.S. dropped thousands of tons of napalm and 635,000 tons of bombs in Korea, compared to the 503,000 tons of bombs dropped in the entire Pacific during World War II. U.S.-related crimes were concealed for decades, including the massacre of hundreds of South Korean civilians and the more than 200 incidents of U.S. soldiers attacking refugees in 1950 and 1951; it was also extremely common for soldiers to rape Korean women. In one atrocity, the South Korean police executed 7,000 political prisoners while the Pentagon blamed the event on the Communists.
Other activists who have echoed Cumings’ sentiment about the U.S. owning up to its sense of responsibility are often attacked as being North Korean sympathizers. U.S. and South Korean understanding of North Korean human rights is problematic, they say, because it ignores the fundamental causes of the problem.
The embargo and sanctions by the U.S. and its trading partners, for example, helped halt North Korea’s development and contributed to its poor infrastructure and famine today. Denying North Korea’s right to food and health over regime change is a form of crime against humanity, they claim. Improving human rights in North Korea requires engaging and de-stigmatizing North Korea, while increasing military presence makes it difficult to forge a diplomatic relationship with North Korea and approach issues like denuclearization and human rights. Some groups opposed the U.S.’ passage of the NKHRA, which was signed by George W. Bush and backed by right-wing Christian groups and pro-war think tanks, along with human rights organizations. By politicizing humanitarian aid and increasing sanctions against North Korea, they say, the bill has actually exacerbated the human rights crisis.
Though I considered myself a progressive, I had never considered this more contextualized view of human rights in North Korea, and I was confused about what to feel. Seeing so many Korean uniformed soldiers with sewn U.S. flag patches at the DMZ was startling, a visual marker of U.S. militarism and intervention. While talking to my father, I rattled on about U.S. self-interest, broaching the possibility that the war was a civil one between Koreans.
“Bullshit,” my father said. “South Korea didn’t have the intent to invade North Korea. Kim Il Sung wanted a war, and he was backed by Russian ambition and desire—but it wasn’t the people of North Korea who wanted a war.”
“The U.S. certainly has some role in the division,” he continued. “No country is all good or all bad—it has its own motivations. Korea was a victim between two ideological forces: communism and democracy. But there’s no doubt that South Korea is indebted to the U.S. When the war broke out North Korea was already well equipped and supported by the Russians—they had strong intentions to invade South Korea and try to unite by force. Without help from the U.S. and the U.N., South Korea would have been demolished and become a communist country. You and me, we’d be in the condition of North Korean people.”
Shortly after my visit to the DMZ, I learned of a concept called “han.” “Han” is a Korean word without an equivalent in English, but refers to sorrow and anger resulting from centuries of oppression, invasion, colonization, war, and national division.
Some academic scholars have referred to a specifically Korean American type of “postmemory” as “postmemory han.” It is a feeling that has been described as “bittersweet longing,” “unexpressed anger built up inside,” “complex,” “dynamic.”
Yet I wasn’t sure if I could claim “postmemory han” to be what I felt. Standing in cue on our last leg of the tour, we forked over 500 won (approximately 50 cents) at the Dorasan station terminal for the Reunification Train, developed in 2007 to run across the DMZ. Although regular service has not begun, the train occasionally took workers and materials to Kaesong Industrial Park, an inter-Korean economic development built in 2005 involving 120 South Korean companies that employ over 47,000 North Korean workers to manufacture products. Kaesong is located in the southernmost region of North Korea, just 16 miles away from Dorasan station.
The man behind the counter stamped my commemorative ticket, pressing with care to make sure the ink doesn’t smear. In reality, the ticket would take me nowhere. Passing through the turnstile, I crossed through the entryway outside into the bright sun. I expected it to be eerie, but everything about it looked mundane – the tracks, the rails, even the sign that says, “205 km to Pyongyang.”
Standing on the platform, I squinted into the distance. I could hardly see anything.
For the past couple of months, I’ve been teaching English at a community center for North Korean defectors. Curious to learn about how the volunteering project got started, I arranged to meet our program coordinator, a man named Park Young-Hak who faithfully waits for the teachers at the bus stop by the center each week.
He greeted me dressed in his usual sporty attire—sneakers and an athletic jersey. As we walked towards his office, I asked him if he liked to play sports. He enjoys calisthenics and 100 meter racing, he said. He pointed to a leafy park across the street, where he and his family do laps every weekend. Near there, he pointed to another building, where he organizes a group to celebrate Chuseok, Korea’s fall harvest festival, or “Korean Thanksgiving” as I knew it growing up. Defectors who come to South Korea alone are lonely, he said.
“On that holiday, they think about the family they left behind—how they are and if they are even still alive.”
His office was modest, with a single desk, two small couches, bookshelves lined with encyclopedic volumes, and a single map of North and South Korea taped to the wall. Young-Hak came to South Korea about ten years ago with his wife and four year-old son, who’s now 14 years old. Now, he serves as the President of the Association of Liberated North Korean Refugees, a non-government sponsored, volunteer group that was founded in November 2009. The group aims to establish a democratic movement in North Korea, and helps defectors to establish successful lives in South Korea. Since many South Koreans pay expensive tuition to send their kids to rigorous after-school academies that up their chances for getting into college, the English tutoring program helps North Koreans learn English so that they can compete.
Young-Hak has traveled to New York and Washington, D.C. to speak to the Senate and House of Representatives about the situation in North Korea. There are all different kinds of people coming from the North, he said, for all different reasons—hunger or politics, for example. Despite this, North Koreans are often stereotyped as being heavy drinkers, prone to crime, reluctant to work, and reliant on government handouts. He explained:
“Some people arrive here and want to have everything and start stealing, but it doesn’t mean that everyone is doing that. Whenever you go anyplace, there is always some percent of people who aren’t good or commit crimes. In the U.S., there are lots of tragedies involving guns and crime. It doesn’t mean that everyone’s doing that – it’s just a few people.”
“I’m trying to do my best,” he said. “There’s nothing to hide. When anyone asks me where I’m from, I say I am from North Korea. Why should I lie? There is nothing we did wrong.”
I started gathering my notes, not wanting to take up too much of his time, but he began describing something I didn’t understand. He took out his smartphone and opened an internet browser, bringing up a website for “Fighters for Free North Korea.” When he zoomed in on a photo of a long, cylinder-shaped balloon, I realized he was talking about the balloon launches.
He scrolled to another picture, this one of a group getting ready to launch balloons from a boat. He pointed to a shorthaired blonde woman, asking if I know who she was.
“Suzanne Scholte,” we both answered. I settled back into my seat.
“We send the balloons from Imjingak,” he said. Excited, he grabbed a water bottle and flipped it upside down to help me visualize. “Each balloon has three big envelopes tied to it. So if we send 10 balloons, we send 30 envelopes.”
“And inside are paper fliers, right?” I asked. He shook his head, explaining, “If they were made out of paper, the balloons would be too heavy.”
There’s a special type of delicate plastic called took-soo-bee-neel, he said. “It’s very, very thin. We print on it. You can’t tear it, you can’t erase the printing on it, and it’s waterproof.”
He continued, “Each envelope has 20,000 fliers, so we send about 200,000 fliers per launch. But if you lump that large a number of fliers together, it turns into a heavy stack. So you have to fan them all out, spread them apart along the inside of the balloon.” He used his hands in an animated gesture, a movement halfway between a breaststroke and a doggie paddle.
“We do it all,” he chuckled proudly, referring to several others including Park Sang Hak, President of Fighters for Free North Korea (FFNK), who work together to prepare all of the materials. He mentioned a big truck he has at home that’s loaded with cylinders of helium gas. Pumping the balloons with such large amounts allows them to descend slowly and avoid injuring people.
“Very, verrry slowly,” he described a balloon’s landing, motioning with his hand as if it’s a feather floating to the ground.
On the fliers, Young-Hak prints information he believes is easier for recipients to digest, evidence that challenges Kim Jong-Il’s claim that North Korea is “the best”—the GDP of North versus South Korea, for example. “Some people like to write Biblical verses, but if you’re in North Korea, you won’t understand what the words even mean,” he said.
Along with the fliers, the balloons carry mobile phones, radios dialed to South Korean stations, one-dollar bills, CDs, and USB flash drives that contain video clips of the recent uprisings in Egypt and Libya. In the past, he’s also attached GPS devices to the balloons—“You turn on the computer, and you’re able to know how far it goes, exactly where it falls.” The problem, he said, is that the devices are expensive, and if you send them once, you can’t get them back across the border to use again.
“Anyway, in terms of knowing whether [the balloons] get there or not, North Korea lets us know. If we send them, they get so mad, saying, ‘You (South Koreans) sent these, didn’t you?”
I mentioned a newspaper article I’d read about a defector who launches balloons because he’d been convinced himself. Young-Hak nodded, saying, “I’ve met people who tell me they decided to escape because they saw one of my fliers.”
As I listened, I started to understand why participating in the balloon launch seems so appealing. There are moments when the benefits of tutoring feel intangible, when teaching feels mundane, when I feel ineffective. Balloon launches, in contrast, seem like a more concrete act, a way to take and instigate action.
In part, perhaps my desire to “save” North Koreans comes from a selfish desire to feel like I am “making a difference” as a volunteer, as a Korean American.
But although I feel a great affinity for South Korea, I’m not South Korean. What had I done to better my own country, I wondered. While plenty of causes needed attention back in the U.S., I’d often been too caught up in my own life to bother caring. Somehow, being here had animated me to get involved. But my growing awareness of the complexities of the situation, and the realization of how much I had yet to understand about South Korean politics, stopped me.
Young-Hak has been doing the launches since 2004, when FFNK was founded. Every year, the group sends some 1.5 million leaflets to the North. Hesitant, I asked him about the reaction of residents in Imjingak.
“They don’t like it because they’re afraid North Korea might open fire and because their businesses are not doing as well,” he acknowledged. “But Imjingak is monitored by U.S. army soldiers. There’s no chance that North Korea would drop a bomb in that area because it’s governed by the United Nations.”
The number of launches conducted per month depends largely on the wind, but Park said doing five per month is a lot. The miscellaneous materials needed to perform a single launch cost approximately four to five million Korean won—the rough equivalent of $4,000 to $5,000 USD. Launching ten times, for example, costs around $40,000 to $50,000 USD. By his estimates, launching a hundred times a year would require sending balloons every three days at a total cost of $400,000 to $500,000 USD.
He noticed the look on my face—“You think it’s a lot of money?”
“It’s not,” he said, taking a swig from the nearly empty water bottle. “If it causes any movement in the North, if residents get stirred by this news, it’s worth it.”
My mobile phone rang when I was at home, alone, not in the middle of anything important. Earlier that week, I had been asked to participate in a street campaign to promote awareness of North Korea’s concentration camps. As volunteers, we would speak to South Koreans and foreigners at various universities throughout Seoul. After a few seconds, I hit the ringer to silent, knowing the voice on the other end was calling for an answer.
Over the past six months, as I’d settled more into my life abroad, I’d grown silent as well. I’d started returning to my old patterns—accumulating more obligations and getting wrapped up in my personal life. But I also knew that my hesitance about what extent to get involved had turned into a kind of stalemate inaction.
I had taken the easy way out, figuring maybe it was best for me to stay out of anything political altogether.
When my phone rang a second time, I picked up, although the issue no longer seemed as black-and-white as I’d once regarded it. I was naïve to have thought it ever was. But despite the spectrum of opinions I’d heard, or rather because of it, I still felt a responsibility to care—as a kyopo, as an American, as a child of South Koreans, as a descendant of freedom fighters with roots in North Korea, as a more informed foreigner.
Perhaps I might never fully grasp the complexities of supporting human rights in North Korea, but I was willing to learn.
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]