Some fear retribution from the North Korean government. Some don’t want to feel alienated from their peers and just want to focus on their new lives. Others would like to share their experiences but lack the confidence to do so, especially in front of an international audience.
In spite of these obstacles, seven North Korean defectors found it worthwhile to raise awareness about their experiences through an English speech contest. The contest took place on August 22 in the Myeongdong district of Seoul. The organization behind the contest, Teach North Korean Refugees (TNKR), is a volunteer organization providing individualized English tutoring to a wide range of North Korean defectors, many of whom want to enhance their opportunities in South Korea and some of whom want merely to communicate their experiences as a defector to a larger audience.
The theme of the speech contest, “What Freedom Means to Me,” allowed the participants to not only share their experiences living as defectors but also to bring their own voices to the discussion. The result of the contest was a plethora of viewpoints, including about the degree to which the defectors feel “free.” Interestingly, in describing their struggles to attain freedom, the defectors devoted about as much attention to their daily lives in the South as their escapes from the North, leaving more questions than answers on the subject of what “freedom” means.
The co-founder of Teach North Korean Refugees (TKNR), Casey Lartigue, said the theme of the speech contest came from the winner of the first speech contest in March.
“I made a mental note of it at the time,” said Lartigue, “then when we decided to have a second contest, that one stood out.”
Because of the buzz generated by the first contest, Lartigue and co-founder Eunkoo Lee were able to secure the sponsorship of the law offices of Shin and Kim, who not only provided a venue for the contest but also the prize money.
For some participants, having grown up in the North, describing “freedom” was not easy. Sehyek Oh, the eventual contest winner, said “(he) was not aware of the fact that (he) had been living with no freedom.” At the time he considered the circumstances – not being able to criticize the Kim family and having to ask for permission every time he traveled – completely normal. Another participant, “Ken,” likened the experience of growing up in North Korea to the Korean/Chinese folk tale of the frog in the well that, lacking any perspective on the outside world, naturally believed the North Korean government’s proclamations that he was among the happiest people in the world.
‘Life without freedom is not really life at all’
As the defectors grew older, their perspectives changed regarding how good or normal life was in North Korea. Oh, for instance, had a turning point when he was forced to stand on a podium and receive criticism from his peers about his attempt to get out of work at a farm site when his ankle was broken. The third-place contestant – who preferred to remain anonymous – said that she became aware of how some people were living on the other side of the river in China and wondered why some people were rich while others, like her, were poor. Realizations such as these ultimately led the defectors to make the difficult decision to leave their country and, in many cases, family members behind.
The most tragic reflection came from the second-place winner Hanbyeol Lee, an activist for the organization Justice For North Korea (JFNK), which her husband Peter Jung founded. Lee told of how her father died from starvation during the famine of the 1990s, her mother lost her hearing during torture and her brother’s hands and feet became infected and he was forced to divorce his wife when he was sent to a labor camp. After using a variety of phrases to denote her lack of freedom, including “a bird within a cage” and “a modern-day slave,” she remarked: “Life without freedom is not really life at all.”
Should you ask a typical American or South Korean what freedom means to them, he or she may respond with a set of homilies or recitations from political philosophers or government documents. North Korean defectors, on the other hand, as evident from this speech contest, may have to come up with more concrete and personal ways of defining the concept.
The only defector to mention a formal conception of freedom was Ken, who brought up the sections of the North Korean constitution that guarantee freedom of speech, association and religion – if only to point out how untrue these “guarantees” are. When he spoke of the freedoms he enjoyed in the South, he emphasized its less obvious manifestations, like the freedom to mock government leaders.
Another unique perspective came from Miyeon Lee, who arrived in South Korea in 2008 and who has since earned a master’s degree in education from Yonsei University. Although she was grateful for the specific freedoms she enjoys in the South, including to study what she wants, she concluded that complete freedom “cannot exist because we are living as social animals.”
Sehyek Oh’s speech won him first prize.
For contest winner Oh, who escaped at the height of the North Korean famine in the 1990s, freedom involves going beyond the limits imposed by society. In North Korea, this involved escaping from poverty: With a monthly salary of only enough money to buy 2 kgs of rice a month, he barely had enough to eat.
“What freedom meant to me at the time was freedom from starvation,” he said.
He also made sure to mention the limits imposed by South Korean society that he also has had to overcome. These barriers have included financial difficulties and job discrimination due to his identity as a North Korean defector. For certain defectors – not those in this competition – these challenges have led to the unconventional desire to return to North Korea. For Oh, on the other hand, his evolving awareness of freedom propelled him to pursue two master’s degrees, run an online shopping mall with other defectors, and co-found a North Korea human rights organization where he works today.
When assessing whether or not they felt they were truly free in the South, the answer for some of the defectors was a resounding no. One defector said that she does not and will not feel free until the North and South are unified. One said he still does not feel free because of the social and peer pressure rampant in South Korean society: He feels forced to drink alcohol by his superiors when he does not want to, and social pressure over a “proper” career led him to abandon his passion to become an athlete.
… people may have to “accept North Korean defectors as no different (than) other human beings.”
Still, these participants are fighting the restrictions that box defectors in: Oh, for instance, said he has had enough of witnessing how defectors have to cover their North Korean dialects or lie about their backgrounds to get a job and has spoken out about this in several formats, including a letter to the South Korean National Assembly. Hanbyeol Lee is working on a master’s degree in Unification Studies and has been active in campaigns on the streets of Seoul. Sharon Jung, who used to work in the coalmines of North Korea, has become a nurse in the South and hopes to return to North Korea after reunification to care for the coal miners in her hometown. Miyeon Lee concluded her speech with a poem about the spring season being taken away from a rice field during the Japanese occupation, likening spring to lost freedom under dictatorship and calling for its return.
While not every defector could take home first prize, that they stood before an audience to speak in a second – or third – language is a testament to their bravery and conviction. Moreover, they inspire other North Korean defectors to be similarly proactive.
“We have refugees already asking us to have a third contest and they want it sooner rather than later,” Lartigue said.
Whether or not this determination will translate into greater influence on policy and/or society in is yet to be seen. But as more North Korean defectors come to the forefront, there will be less of a tendency to view them as stereotypes, or even as victims. Instead, as Oh said, people may have to “accept North Korean defectors as no different (than) other human beings.”
Images courtesy of Casey Lartigue