Working with North Korean defectors

Nam Bada discusses the challenge of North Korean human rights and the experiences of North Korean refugees in South Korea.

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SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus

People for Successful Corean Reunification (PSCORE) is a non-governmental organization based in Seoul that advocates for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula and assists North Korean refugees in adapting to life in South Korea through education and intercultural activities. It also raises awareness about North Korean human rights abuses at the United Nations. PSCORE was founded in 2006 by Kim Young-Il, a former North Korean soldier who escaped the country with his family and defected to the South. PSCORE adopted the original spelling “Corea,” widely in use before the division of the peninsula, to emphasize its goal of reunification.

Nam Bada is the secretary general of PSCORE. He has been working for the organization since 2010 and has participated in various UN human rights mechanisms. Nam is a human rights and reunification activist who has worked on several publications, reports, and campaigns about the humanitarian crisis in North Korea

What can the international community do to help address human rights abuses or promote a democratic opening in North Korea?

The international community should be more aware of North Korean human rights issues and support activities related to the advancement of the situation in North Korea. Until this year, the North Korean Human Rights Resolution has been passed for 17 years in a row at the UN General Assembly; in the UN Human Rights Council, the resolution has been passed for 19 years in a row. Such international agreements need to be continued, and organizations like PSCORE, who work with the purpose of making progress for North Korean human rights in the world, need access to sufficient resources to bring about real improvements for the North Korean people.

Based on your talks with North Korean defectors, how much support is there for the regime inside the country? How much false propaganda about the U.S. and South Korea is believed?

The North Korean leadership has complete control over the country. Sometimes the regime has people travel abroad, but when they come back to North Korea they tend to speak of the rest of the world in a negative way. For example, they share information related to natural disasters, chaos from the pandemic (COVID-19), or other kinds of bad news. Ordinary North Korean citizens cannot travel abroad for personal reasons. If someone is granted special authorization by the government to visit another country for occupational, diplomatic, or educational reasons, they always need to leave one or most of their family members in North Korea. This disincentivizes these people from criticizing the regime or trying to defect from the country.

In addition to the dissemination of negative information by the North Korean regime, it also controls media outlets, which publicize ill-informed and biased narratives of the outside world through state-run television broadcasts and newspapers. Therefore, North Korean people are brainwashed to believe North Korea is the safest and best country to live in. Even if the North Korean people think the message from the government is not entirely true, they have no other means to compare the reality in other countries and they are disconnected from the outside world (they are allowed to have phones, but they are not authorized to make overseas calls). The information they receive is thus changed and controlled. The government has a complete monopoly on information. So, although citizens have suspicions that the propaganda about the United States and South Korea might be a lie or different, they believe the overall information is true, so when they defect and come to South Korea, they have a lot of internal conflicts because it is very different then what they had heard throughout their lives.

Can you talk about North Korea’s economic system and why so many people have to rely on the black markets for survival? How difficult is it for citizens to use the black market without getting in trouble with state authorities?

North Korea is originally a socialist country, so the government needs to provide all the necessities to their people. This was manageable for the regime in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If someone was caught trading on the black market during that time, severe punishments would follow. However, from the mid-1990s when the “Arduous March” or “Great Famine” began [death toll estimates from the famine range between hundreds of thousands to as high as 3.5 million], people started to realize that they could not survive if they only relied on the government’s distribution of resources. The people who kept relying on the government distribution perished in hunger, often starving to death. However, the people who did everything to survive through the use of the black market had a better chance at survival.

Nowadays, every necessity for daily life is traded through the market, and distribution through the government is almost gone. People cannot live without these markets. However, the market is controlled whenever the government feels it is necessary. It is not a completely free trade system. The younger generations who live under the current society, who work through a market economy run by the black market, are very different to those who lived under the government’s distribution system. Previously, the government’s intention for the distribution system was to make it seem natural for a society, but now it has started to rely more and more on the individual. This causes people’s mindsets to change, but transforming an entire social system is hard, especially when the dictator refuses to concede power. This makes actual change difficult to achieve.

Can you talk about the “guilt-by-association” policies in North Korea and how this prevents citizens from trying to defect?

Guilt-by-association impacts various aspects of life in North Korea. It is a policy where if one person escapes the country, the regime will retaliate and punish this individual’s remaining family members. This causes people to be hesitant about leaving the country out of fear for their family’s safety. In a worst case scenario, the entire family can be sent to one of the many political prison camps. So even when defectors arrive in South Korea, they could still be pressured to return because of threats to their family members in North Korea, which is very inhumane. Some of the defectors who have provided testimonies about human rights violations in North Korea have had their family members pressured by the government. Normally, the defector can still get news about their family through illegal means. So, upon discovering their families are being threatened, defectors are often afraid to publicly provide information in order to keep their families safe. There are challenges not only when they try to defect, but also after they defect. Another example is, simply based on a family member’s affiliation during the Korean War (1950-1953), you may automatically face disadvantages in gaining better employment opportunities and social status.

Can you talk about PSCORE’s work with the UN Special Rapporteur on North Korea and the UN Economic and Social Council? 

Throughout history, the North Korean government has been the world’s worst human rights violator. PSCORE has been working on research to direct attention to the situation of North Korean human rights violations, for example by publishing different reports related to these violations, as well as a series about children’s rights in North Korea. It has reports about the education system, child labor, child abuse, and recently a report about digital rights in North Korea. Right now, we are planning another report for this year about Internet freedom in North Korea. After the report is complete, it will be sent to the UN Special Rapporteur along with summarized reports to the Human Rights Council.

At this moment, PSCORE is the only NGO in South Korea focused on North Korean human rights violations that has a consultative status with the UN’s Economic and Social Council, so it provides papers and reports to different UN mechanisms and defector testimonies every year. It works with defectors by not only having them provide testimony, but also by having them participate in advocating for human rights and democracy in North Korea. Defectors provide direct testimony to the UN.

What do you think the outside world doesn’t understand or doesn’t know about North Korean citizens regarding political conditions in the country?

When people read our reports carefully, many say they didn’t possess such detailed and deep knowledge about life inside North Korea. The government didn’t just create a concrete political system that favors a dictator; it has tried to elevate Kim Jong Un to a “god-like” level. For example, when the previous dictator died, a lot of the media said people in North Korea mourned and cried in the streets. The media could not understand that right behind the scenes of people mourning were soldiers and party members. So, if in that moment people did not make that kind of scene, government officials would not only intimidate them but also threaten their family members. People in North Korea live under severe pressure. This pressure over a lifetime is something that most outside people might not be able to stand for even an hour.

The North Korean dictator is not just a fat, funny, or stupid man. He is very cruel and cunning and has found ways of using people to fuel his addiction to political power. He is, in fact, very dangerous. When the dictator is dissatisfied with someone, he sometimes just kills them. Imagine a serial killer ruling an entire country. It’s a very severe problem.

 What role does China play in preventing North Korean refugees from escaping the country? Why did China object to PSCORE’s rescue missions?

China does not want to support defectors fleeing from North Korea, as this generates social problems near Chinese border areas. For China, the reunification of the Korean Peninsula means sharing a border with a U.S. ally and potentially having a U.S. military base closer to its border. So, although they know North Korea is putting its population in danger by starving them to death or having them face political threats, China just sends the defectors back to North Korea. The Chinese government does not see defectors as refugees; they are seen as illegal border-crossers. It just captures them and forcefully repatriates them to North Korea. Even rescue missions of North Koreans in China, such as ones done by PSCORE, are seen by the Chinese government as human trafficking and are punished very severely. China is also a country guilty of committing serious human rights violations against its own population.

What further steps could the South Korean government take to integrate North Korean defectors into society? There have been some recent articles in the media about how difficult it can be for North Korean defectors to successfully assimilate into South Korea.

It is not easy for North Korean defectors to live in and adapt to South Korean society. The two countries are very different in their political systems, economic capacity, and overall social structures. As a result, North Koreans face numerous challenges in communicating with South Korean natives and functioning within schools, workplaces, and everyday social contexts. Most of these problems occur due to North Korea’s educational curriculum and national policies that distort the civilian’s perception of their society and the outside world from early childhood up until their defection.

What kind of programs would help foster more positive relationships between North Korean defectors and the rest of the South Korean citizenry?

The South Korean government and NGOs, such as PSCORE, are making diverse efforts to improve cooperation and exchange between North Korean defectors and South Korean natives. The government has established a number of regional centers throughout the nation to support North Korean defectors who recently arrived or have had difficulties integrating into South Korea. The government has further developed programs and centers that facilitate multicultural exchanges within society. PSCORE has worked to strengthen positive relations and understanding through workshops, lecture series, educational programs, and advocacy campaigns that publicly deliver the first-hand experiences of North Korean defectors. For example, PSCORE published a booklet that provided the perspectives of North Korean defectors who have lived in South Korea for a long time, South Koreans who have experienced working with North Korean defectors, and foreigners who have worked with both South Korean and North Korean people. To continue the promotion of these kinds of social development efforts, the financial contributions and advocacy of the public is necessary.

Although defectors are struggling in their individual adaptation to the country, there are others who have overcome their hardships and are successfully living well. For example, PSCORE hosts an after-school education program for student defectors, which includes English language tutoring. One student, Jeon Geum-Ju, studied English under our program and eventually studied floristry in the United Kingdom. Upon her return to South Korea, she opened a florist shop and made videos of how to create floral art for student defectors in our afterschool program. Unfortunately, these achievements are not publicized in the media. News of North Korean defectors with issues or extreme controversies are more popularly sensationalized. PSCORE holds strong relationships with defectors who have successful stories to share.

What do you envision would need to happen to lead to a reunified Korea? Also, what policies or events do you envision would represent positive first steps toward the eventual reunification of Korea?

Just a single event or policy is not enough to make a unified Korea because we have already been separated for more than 70 years. We need to build stronger connections through exchange between the people of the North and South to promote better understanding of one another. When people in the two Koreas agree to come together as one country, then reunification can happen. With this in mind, I hope that North Korea will work toward fostering better cooperation and willingness to accept South Korea’s various peace talks and initiatives.

One final important message: I wish the international community would support the reunification of Korea. Due to politically motivated interests, there are some governments or political groups that do not support the reunification of the peninsula. However, it is imperative for states to consider the people who live in North Korea and South Korea, and the impact a unified Korea would have on improving respect for human rights, the social and legal justice system, and the overall quality of life within society. Therefore, I encourage the world to not simply see Korea’s reunification as a political issue, but rather, consider the human lives within the nations.

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