Greetings! It is 2014, the Year of the Horse.
Time flies with so much work to be done. In 2013, I lost my older sister, who raised me like a mother, but there were many achievements to be happy about. We managed to take a big step forward in the North Korean human rights movement with the UN’s establishment of the Commission of Inquiry (COI), which held hearings in South Korea, Japan, the United States and Great Britain. I was also happy that several North Korean defectors had the courage to put their experiences in writing and published their memoirs, and that two North Korean university students were accepted to the Law School of Seoul National University for the first time, giving a ray of hope to the North Korean defectors community in South Korea. Above everything else, I was very grateful that NKHR helped to save the lives of 50 North Korean refugees hiding in China.
On January 14, we rejoiced over the UN High Commissioner’s statement calling for the necessity of an investigation into human rights violation in North Korea, which was especially meaningful because it came on the heels of our meeting with the Commissioner a month earlier, in which we stressed the urgency of the situation.
After the COI was established, the committee members visited South Korea, Japan, the United States and Great Britain to hold public hearings. To learn more about North Korea’s abductions of South Korean citizens, the COI secretariat accompanied NKHR to Geoje Island, on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, where many villages had lost its men overnight due to abductions in the Yellow Sea.
In Geoje, we met more than 20 people whose family members were abducted by North Korea. I cannot express the pain of a woman in her eighties who lost her only two sons, both of whom were fishing on the same boat when the entire vessel was taken to North Korea. She is still grieving more than four decades later.
NKHR traveled to Geneva this past March with several victims of abductions. One abductee who escaped back to South Korea gave his testimony at an NGO parallel meeting at the UN Human Rights Council. He also told his story at our meeting with the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and was joined by several other South Koreans who had lost their loved ones to abductions. NKHR submitted 15 cases of abductions to the WGEID in 2013, and in December, we received word that 12 cases had been transmitted to the North Korean government.
From May 22-23, NKHR traveled to Jakarta, Indonesia, to campaign with local organizations on North Korean human rights. Our campaign and advocacy efforts, which included testimonies from two North Korean women, resulted in local media coverage by over 15 outlets. As a leading member of ASEAN, Indonesia has a large role to play for North Korean human rights in the region. We hope they will speak up in denouncing the enforced repatriation of North Korean refugees as they journey through China and Southeast Asian countries on their way to freedom.
On June 17-18, NKHR opened its 12th International Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees in Berlin, Germany. We had a chance to meet with German President Joachim Gauck and Chancellor Angela Merkel. President Gauck kindly sent us his congratulatory remarks for the conference, in which he strongly criticized North Korea. President Gauck’s father was also a political prisoner, and he himself was a human rights activist, and his words of support strengthened our resolve in Germany. Writing this, I am also reminded of Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj’s remark during a speech to Kim Il-sung University in North Korea this past November: “No tyranny lasts forever.”
Starting March 30, 2013, with the rescue of a 30-month old baby and her mother, NKHR helped 50 North Korean refugees come to South Korea in 2013. They are: 2 toddlers, 9 young children, 6 teenagers, 27 women, and 6 men. NKHR has now brought over 460 North Korean refugees to safety in South Korea. We couldn’t have saved these 50 people in 2013 without the help that came from many groups in many forms. High school students fundraised and sent us their pocket money, NKHR Rescue Fund volunteers raised over $12,000, and citizens anonymously sent us large sums of money to help these refugees. I spent many nights awake thinking of the refugees navigating dangerous checkpoints at that moment. Lastly, we cannot forget the work of activists in China risking their lives to help the refugees. Their work is difficult and dangerous, and I thank them again for their work.
In May, the forced repatriation of nine North Korean children by the Laotian government back to North Korea via Beijing made international headlines. NKHR staged protests at the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Laotian embassy in Seoul, and South Korea’s government complex. We also gathered over 15,000 signatures and sent them to President Park Geun-hye on the eve of her first state trip to Beijing, asking her to raise the issue of enforced repatriation to China. In 2014, we must act to prevent refugees from being sent back to North Korea. It is our job to pressure China to uphold the non-refoulement policy with North Korean refugees.
I met with the South Korean pastor who was leading this group of repatriated nine children, and we cried together as he told me the story of each child. There was the young girl who was sold in China and worked like a slave before getting caught and sent back to North Korea. She escaped again, but never got to taste freedom. She asked the pastor, “Why do we have to live like this?” There was the young boy who could have left China earlier for the United States, but who did not want to separate from the pastor, whom he had grown to call his father. Hearing these stories from the pastor, I felt each and every one of the children’s pain. I could not speak. We must never forget that these children were taken from us. I will work with the trust that I will meet these orphans one day.
On October 16, we held our 7th annual Beautiful Dream Concert, a benefit concert to raise funds for North Korean youth resettling in South Korea. Over 1800 people attended the concert at the beautiful Seoul Arts Center, and NKHR raised over $100,000 for our education programs.
We open each year with the Hangyoreh Seasonal School, a two-week sleepaway academic camp for students from North Korea. Last January, the school staff reported that the kids were studying until 2 or 3 am, and that they had to convince them to go to sleep at night. I hope that the Hangyoreh Seasonal School continues to be a safe haven for North Korean students to come, study, and rest with people who care about them. NKHR also held a monthly series on career training. Young students shadowed professionals to learn more about new and various career tracks. In July, the education team also went to Washington D.C. with North Korean defector college students for our annual Leadership Program.
On May 30 and November 27, NKHR was invited by the U.S. Air Force to come to Osan Air Base and give a presentation on North Korean human rights. We were accompanied by Kim Hyuk, a North Korean defector whose story became well-known in Barbara Demick’s book Nothing to Envy, and in November, by Young-bok Yoo, a Korean War POW who had made the dangerous escape out of North Korea decades after the war was over. Over 900 people attended the events. On June 13, we hosted an awareness-raising campaign and musical performance at Seokyeong University for 300 students.
Our holiday party held on December 12 brought together North Korean musicians, defectors who we’ve helped, our dedicated board members, students, volunteers, and supporters. A mother and child who we brought from China thanked us in a short speech, and we presented several outstanding North Korean college students with scholarships.
In remembering President Nelson Mandela’s legacy of freedom, human rights, forgiveness, and reconciliation, I hope for reunification on the Korean peninsula. We will need a leader like President Mandela at that time, one who practices forgiveness and reconciliation and finds worldwide respect.
Challenging work is made easier by people sharing their talents, efforts, and love. We are so grateful to you, our members and supporters for your continued support. We wish you the best as we work together in 2014.
January 1, 2014
Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR)