In the context of an escalation of the situation between North Korea and the United States, one may be wondering who are the people living behind the curtain of heavily rehearsed military parades, an expanding nuclear arsenal and orderly conduct. Who are the North Koreans and what it may be like to live in the country of Kim Jong-un?
Twenty-three-year-old human rights activist and North Korean defector Yeonmi Park seems to have recently become the face and voice of her people, as well as an inspiration for freedom-seeking individuals throughout the world. In the fall of 2014 she was a featured speaker at the Oslo Freedom Forum and the One Young World Summit in Dublin, where her speech about the North Korean regime became an international phenomenon. The speech included details about life inside North Korea, such as people having access to only one channel on TV which promotes mostly communist propaganda, the lack of information due to restrictive policies regarding internet and media and the citizens having to adapt what they say, wear, think and do to the wishes of dictator Kim Jong-un, in a marionette-like fashion.
Born on October 4th, 1993, in Hyesan, North Korea, Yeonmi and her mother escaped to China in 2007, then Mongolia and South Korea in 2009. She now lives in New York and studies at Columbia University. Since finding freedom abroad, Ms. Park has written and spoken publicly about her life in North Korea. Summing up her family’s reasons to escape, Yeonmi said: “We wanted to live like human beings.” She is now advocating for North Korean refugees in China, works to promote human rights around the globe and has been profiled in numerous media outlets.
Yeonmi Park’s volunteer activity appears focused on raising awareness of the reality in North Korea, the situation of North Korean refugees and how the international community may aid their need for freedom and protection: “People often ask me, ‘how can you help North Koreans?’ There are many ways […] one is to educate yourself so that you can raise awareness about […] North Korea. Two, help and support North Korean refugees who are trying to escape to freedom. Three, petition China on repatriation. We have to shine a light on [North Korea] […] We need to focus less on the regime and more on the people who are being forgotten.” She believes the North Korean regime has the capacity to adjust, like the Chinese and Vietnamese communists have done, provided the leader allows its country to become more open to the world and focus more on the wellbeing of the citizens. She has also been outspoken about tourism in North Korea, as visitors are encouraged to bow to statues of the late leaders Kim Jong II and Kim II Sung – a practice which she thinks is helping the regime’s propaganda by solidifying the claim foreigners respect and value the leaders of the country.
Some of the North Koreans who have escaped their country’s dictatorship and found freedom in South Korea have established civil society groups dedicated to sending information, culture, and knowledge to their families, friends and neighbors who continue to live in the country. An initiative called “Flash Drives for Freedom” started by Human Rights Foundation and Silicon Valley-based Forum 280 is collecting used USB sticks from around the world for North Korean refugee-led organisations in South Korea. Each year these organisations load drives with films, e-books, internet content, etc and send them to North Korea, in an attempt to open the eyes of North Koreans to the reality of the outside world, which may enable them to challenge the regime’s propaganda and potentially lead to a change for the better within the country.
While the world may be watching what’s next on the political scene for North Korea in connection to its relations with the US, other countries and the world, it may be important to also remember the people – the North Koreans who, like Yeonmi Park, may be dreaming of living with dignity and a fulfilling and free life.
How may access to information benefit the people of North Korea?