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Defector's harrowing story inspires Leadership Network member

In this article, Leadership Network member Dhaxna Sothieson talks about meeting North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho while on the network's Korea Offshore Forum last year.

Dhaxna speaking to a woman standing beside a billboard in a plaza

A few days before my arrival at the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s offshore forum in Seoul, news broke around the world of a North Korean soldier dramatically fleeing and crossing the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea while being pursued on foot and shot at by other North Korean soldiers. A very rare and bold feat. I wondered what would drive a 24-year-old soldier to risk his life by crossing one of the most heavily guarded places in the world.

Media attention generally focuses on Kim Jung Un’s relentless pursuit of missiles and nuclear weapons, drawing attention away from the 25 million people who live in North Korea.

According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, an estimated 30,000 North Koreans have defected to the South since the end of the Korean War, with more than 1,400 defectors escaping to South Korea last year.

Once arriving in the South, many defectors do not speak out against the regime for many reasons including to protect family left behind in the North.

I wanted to learn more about the human rights situation in North Korea while attending the forum. Prior to leaving, I met up with Michelle McCarthy, a fellow Network member.

Michelle had previously met with Ji Seong-Ho, a North Korean defector, on the Foundation’s May 2017 forum in South Korea.

Ji Seong-ho's tells his story at the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2015

In 2010, Ji Seong-Ho set up a not-for-profit organisation called Now, Action and Unity for Human Rights (“NAUH”) in Seoul to raise awareness of human rights issues in North Korea.

Michelle, after returning to New Zealand, had fundraised money for NAUH by organising a Korean cooking class in Wellington. I was to meet with Ji Seong-Ho to give him the fundraised money.

Before our meeting, I watched a speech Ji Seong-Ho gave at the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2015, entitled “My Impossible Escape” (I would encourage you to watch it).

He tells his unimaginable story of his 10,000 kilometer journey from North Korea. In 1996, when he was 14 years old and living in North Korea with his family, Ji Seong-Ho was scavenging for coal to exchange for food on a freight train when he blacked out from hunger and exhaustion. He weighed around 20kg at the time.

It is estimated that up to 2 million North Koreans died during the brutal famine in the 1990s, but the numbers have never been confirmed.

Ji Seong-Ho awoke on a railway track with his left leg and a few fingers on his left hand severed after being run over by a train. His leg was amputated, but there were no anesthetics or painkillers available freely at the North Korean hospital. Eventually in 2006, Ji Seong-Ho escaped North Korea with his brother. Using wooden crutches, he walked from North Korea to China, and then on to Laos and Myanmar, and eventually to Thailand where he was able to fly to South Korea.

When we met with Ji Seong-Ho in Seoul, he spoke about the types of programmes that NAUH undertake including rescues at the North Korean/Chinese border to assist in moving North Koreans to South Korea, radio broadcasts to the North informing North Koreans about the realities of the North Korean regime, and sending USB sticks to the North with contents including South Korean TV dramas to show the realities of the outside world.

Korean soldiers at the Demilitarised Zone that separates North and South Korea

One of the most surprising things I learnt from our meeting, was that 80% of the 260 or so people NAUH have assisted so far to travel to South Korea are women and children.

Women and girls are trafficked into the border regions in China and sold as wives or forced into prostitution. This occurs because China does not recognise North Koreans as refugees despite being a signatory to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention.

China views North Koreans as illegal economic migrants and repatriates them back to North Korea if caught. Many women and girls are trapped in a harsh reality whereby they cannot return back to the North (for fear of torture or punishment/death), but cannot leave China due to not having identification papers or a passport to travel to the South.

Even in South Korea, the issue of human rights in the North were not well known until after the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights concluded and published its report in 2014 on the widespread, systematic and grave violations of human rights (including related to prison camps, torture and inhuman treatment, freedom of movement, and the right to food).

NAUH’s goal of raising awareness of the human rights situation, particularly among young South Koreans, is an important one to ensure that the people of North Korea are not forgotten.

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26 January 2018