On July 8, 1999, the South Korean government opened the Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees, often referred to as “Hanawon.” In the last two decades, more than 32,000 North Korean refugees have made it to South Korea.

Two decades later, on July 7, 2019, TNKR held a Global Leadership Forum featuring three North Korean refugees who arrived in South Korea at different times–2004, 2010, 2019. They discussed their experiences at the Hanawon re-education center. They had a variety of experiences, which is a reason I remind people to be very slow in coming to conclusions based on a handful of interviews or experiences. There are still people who ask me what North Korean refugees think about a particular topic, and my response is, “Many things.”

TNKR Special Ambassador Ken Eom, the only speaker who is public, described Hanawon as a “jail.” He was humorous even as he was denouncing Hanawon. A big challenge for him was that the first speaker was balanced, but Ken was coming at Hanawon with Donald Trumpesque fire and fury. He called Hanawon “a jail on the bridge to freedom.”


We were surprised that anyone showed up. Many TNKR fans and volunteers are vacationing, traveling, or being lazy during this summer.


I proposed the idea of this event to TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee back when I was in the USA during the month of April. I was asked a question about Hanawon, then happened to later notice that the 20th anniversary was coming up.

When I got back, I began interviewing refugees about Hanawon for what turned into a six-part series for the “Voices from the North” blog.

Part 6: https://tinyurl.com/yy7xsuvo
Part 5: https://tinyurl.com/y5cupyc4
Part 4: https://tinyurl.com/y64hg365
Part 3: https://tinyurl.com/y62t3l2q
Part 2: https://tinyurl.com/y5gdlkak
Part 1: https://tinyurl.com/y2avh9nt

Moderating such a session isn’t easy, because obviously people want to hear from the refugees, but I also had heard from many other refugees and could have added some of their input.

  • TNKR co-founder Eunkoo Lee coordinated with refugees in preparation for the event.
  • TNKR project manager Youngmin Kwon translated.
  • Our intern team helped out with the event.

Slideshow of photos

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