Don’t Leave North Koreans in the Dark: South Korea’s Misguided Ban on Sending Information Across the Border

My latest Foreign Affairs article joins the chorus of voices who are critical of the legislation recently passed by the South Korean Parliament that criminalizes the dissemination of information into North Korea.

Don’t Leave North Koreans in the Dark: South Korea’s Misguided Ban on Sending Information Across the Border

(It’s a guest link that bypasses the paywall, so do skim it if you have time)

Note that the nickname “anti-leaflet bill” is misleading; the legislation is much more comprehensive in its ban than leaflets across the inter-Korean border.

Others who have expressed strong concern and criticism of this South Korean legislation:

Representations Made To the UK Foreign Secretary about the Republic of Korea’s “Gag Law” (co-signed by Assemblyman Thae Yong-Ho; Assemblyman Ji Seong-Ho; Timothy Cho, British-North Korean escapee & Inquiry Clerk to the All-Parliamentary
Group on North Korea; Benedict Rogers, Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and Senior Analyst, East Asia, at CSW; Jihyun Park, British-North Korean escapee & Human Rights Activist; Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director, Committee For Human rights in North Korea; and yours truly.

US Republican Representative Chris Smith voices ‘serious concern’ over South Korea’s growing disregard of fundamental civil liberties, acquiescence to Communist North

Olivia Enos in Forbes (

Josh Rogin at the Washington Post (

If you share our strong concern over this bill, call your US representative, or your representative if you live outside the US, and encourage them to voice their concern over this very problematic bill.

North Korean defector students serving homeless people in Seoul

During my trip to Seoul this summer, I met extraordinary people who escaped North Korea and are involved in service projects throughout South Korea. I was particularly inspired by North Korean defectors who are now college students in Seoul who want to “achieve unification of the two Koreas on a small scale by working with South Korean native peers through service projects.”

Esther Eom left North Korea several years ago and has been engaged in service projects over the past several years in Seoul. She is currently directing an NGO called “UNI SEED,” which engages university students who are South Korean natives and North Korean defectors to serve homeless people in Seoul. She believes that individual students can achieve what politicians currently cannot: unification (on a small scale) between North and South Koreans.

Additionally, she and her fellow NGO members want to signal to South Koreans and others that people who escaped North Korea are not solely dependent on South Korean NGO and government handouts. This young generation of North Korean defectors want to prove to themselves and others that not only can they survive, but also serve those in their new country.

Every third Saturday, UNI SEED cooks North Korean food, packages them into individual meals (rice, North Korean side dishes, and North Korean soup), and hands them out to homeless men and women in Seoul Station, a high-traffic area. They hand out the meals, and then go around the station to collect any and all trash that resulted from these meals. I was invited to their recent meal event and was inspired by how passionate, determined, and creative this group is.

There are other similar groups at churches and university campus across South Korea who want to achieve unification on a small scale by inviting South Korean native and North Korean defector students to work together on service projects and build trusting friendships through social events.

Keep an eye out for UNI SEED, Esther Eom, her colleagues, and for similar organizations. The power of a single individual truly cannot be underestimated!

Want Better News on North Korea by the Best Sources?

…then support’s Kickstarter Campaign titled “North Korea Borderlands Reporting Project!

This project will send two North Korean defector journalists to the Chinese-North Korean border to source news and share their findings with us all.  Check out the video and support the good work that Chad O’Carroll and team are doing at NK News. (And sign up for their daily newsletter!)

What’s a better way to get news from this regime than from North Koreans themselves who have the skills to source primary materials and write stories to share with the world?



New York City Hosts a North Korea Propaganda Artist / Political Prisoner / Dissident Artist

Song Byeok went from being a North Korean propaganda artist to political prisoner to now a dissident artist. His work will be exhibited in New York City for the next few weeks (May 7 – June 13) and I’d love for anyone in NYC to check his work out. This is an extremely unique show.

The exhibition, titled “Looking at the World’ is “dedicated to all those who have suffered from the physical and psychological abuses of a flawed government pivoted on the lack of human rights and freedom.”

ArtNowNY Gallery: 548 West 28th St.#232 NY, NY 10001; (646) 535-6528;

Past media coverage of Mr. Song:

Please direct all media inquiries/interview requests to Henry Song at 202-341-6767. (BTW — Henry is a really passionate North Korean human rights activist and you all should get to know him!)



song byeok 2

Hack and Frack North Korea: How Information Campaigns can Liberate the Hermit Kingdom

I’ve been working on this research and short paper titled Hack and Frack North Korea: How Information Campaigns can Liberate the Hermit Kingdom for a while now and it finally came out today.

Please check it out and share it with people you think may be interested.  If you have Kim Jong Un’s email address, feel free to forward this to him!


——————-Executive Summary——————-

This paper will make a case for the U.S. government to pursue three strategies if its operational objective is to force North Korea to reappraise its own interests. Individual self-determination and access to information—two properties the Kim regime fears most for its citizens to possess –are the short-term goals for North Koreans. This objective and two goals do not necessarily equate to regime change.

Even at its best, information fracking does not portend rapid changes in North Korea. But it does offer the best prospect for creating conditions for the government to consider incremental political changes. The more informed its citizens are, the less North Korea’s political leadership will be able to simply eliminate all the “bad seeds” in society by relegating alleged criminals and their relatives to political prison camps or worse. Otherwise, there will be no one left to rule over. Success of information hacking requires enlisting a broad range of stakeholders as part of its three-pronged strategy:

  1. Strengthen covert operations to hack into North Korea’s information channels and support internal dissidents.
  2. Increase funding for NGOs in the U.S. and South Korea to transmit outside media into North Korea and provide business skills to North Koreans.
  3. Bolster training for North Korean defectors, the primary liaisons between North Korea and the outside world, in journalism, IT, and social media

Each effort complements the other two; all must be pursued in concert. Read the full paper here.

Grab your next latte at Cafe Red Cherry, a Seoul-based Cafe run by North Korean “New Settlers”

In a city obsessed with thematic, niche cafes, the most unique–and perhaps most meaningful–cafe has opened its doors in Seoul a few months ago: a cafe started and run entirely by North Korean defectors.

There are over 27,000 North Korean defectors who have settled in South Korea and despite the South Korean government’s effort to assist the new citizens, the needs and challenges of North Korean defectors far exceed the available resources. Due to low skills, low salaries, discrimination, difficulties around cultural assimilation, and often times trauma among North Korean defectors, the suicide rate within this community is two and a half times that of South Korean natives.

YOVEL Col, Ltd, a social enterprise founded by a North Korean defector Joseph Park (or self-described “North Korean Newsettler”) has a mission to bridge the gap between North Korean defectors and South Korean natives in South Korea. They seek to understand the North Korean community in South Korea, identify their challenges and needs, and create business and social enterprise models to foster self-sufficiency. YOVEL established Cafe Red Cherry inside the Industrial Bank of Korea and has hired three full time North Korean employees. These three, among others, have been involved throughout the process of designing, establishing, and running this cafe.

YOVEL’s long term goal is to build community in North Korea. To create a community, according to Joseph Park, one needs self-sustaining economy, education, and healthcare. The community must be self sufficient and cannot chronically depend on churches, NGOs, and the government to provide for every need. So far, there have been many social enterprises run by South Koreans that employ North Koreans. However, Joseph noticed that many of the North Koreans working for these initiatives did not have much passion for their work. He realized that these folks needed ownership. In most initiatives to employ North Koreans thus far, the North Koreans did not have much, or any, decision making power.

For this cafe, Joseph had North Koreans be part of every step of the way, from start to finish of the cafe. Each person who wanted to be a board member had to invest at least a tad bit of money. In July of last year, Joseph went to the chairman of the IBK Bank to ask her for free space in the building. After making a strong case that this cafe run entirely by North Koreans would create value, profit, jobs, and most importantly community among North Korean defectors and beyond, the chairman agreed.

Cafe Red Cherry opened its doors for business in December 2014. On opening day, the Minister of the Ministry of Unification, the Chairman of the Parliament, the IBK Chairman among others came to celebrate the significance of the cafe. They told the employees that although they’re starting small now, they could open branches of this cafe in Pyongyang, Rason, Sinuiju and other cities throughout North Korea once the two countries reunify.

Please check out the cafe when you get a chance! The address is: 183-1, Dongcheon-dong, Suji-gu, Yongin-si, Gyeonggi-do, Seoul, Korea. 1/3 of the cafe’s profits will support educational efforts for North Korean defector youth.

IMG_5362 - Copy
Brainstorming session


Brainstorming session continues

...and continues!
…and continues!

The Cafe Red Cherry Team!

Cafe Red Cherry Team!

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Art Club at Yeomyung School (Alternative School for North Korean students in Seoul)

When working at Google a few years ago, I connected with some North Korean students at Yeomyung school, one of the few private alternative schools for North Korean students who fled their country and currently live in Seoul. Some generous Googlers donated 70 flip cameras to the 68 students at the school and Tribeca Teaches connected with YeoMyung school to teach media literacy to these students who came from a country where all media was centered on state propaganda.

I visited a few times and stayed in close touch with a few students at the school. In particular, I connected with the school’s art club. The art teacher told me that many of the students who enrolled at the school refused to speak, socialize, or share much about their lives. After all, each one of the students went through horrific experiences of defecting from North Korea, some of them having been repatriated, tortured, or worse.  The art teacher said that art helped many of the students begin their journeys of healing. With permission, I took photos of some of the drawing and paintings made by some of the students. See below.

NPR story on Yeomyung School


Carefully look at the drawings around the tree roots; there are public executions, people being hanged, mothers and men toiling, soldiers beating people. These are the roots of children being raised in the communist state of North Korea.

I believe this is a drawing of the boy who defected from his country (and left his only family, his brother).

The title of this work roughly translates to “Like my insides, like my outsides” This work describes the emptiness and hollowness inside and outside of this student’s mind and body.

This drawing illustrates “kotjebi” (a Korean word that refers to North Korean homeless children, that literally translates into “swallows” because they are always searching for scrapes of food and shelter) begging for food while two North Korean soldiers drink.



From Dictatorship to Democracy by Dr. Gene Sharp [Free Korean edition now available!]

I’ve been working on this project for some time now, and cannot emphasize enough how inspirational and effective the Albert Einstein Institute is. If you are interested, please download the Korean version of this, or the English version of this important book on the website!

North Korea Hackathon in Silicon Valley (Behind the Scenes!)

This past weekend, a North Korea Hackathon took place in Silicon Valley, hopefully the first of many. The New York City-based Human Rights Foundation organized this event in San Francisco that drew a diverse crowd of about one hundred people, including engineers, college students, investors, journalists, and four prominent North Korean defectors. People who do excellent research, writing, and journalism like Martyn Williams, Chad O’Carroll, and Kurt Achin were there. The goal of this weekend was to tap into the Silicon Valley’s brains and skills to come up with creative solutions to send foreign media and information into North Korea, the most intentionally isolated regime in the world. As many of you know, accessing foreign information is highly dangerous for North Korean people, yet many risk their lives to secretly watch dvds, read foreign news, and listen to radio programs in order to desperately learn more about their world outside North Korea. You could read more about the happenings throughout the hackathon in real journal articles that I’ll share below, so I’ll refrain from describing much of the event’s official agenda in this blog post.

The four North Korean guests and myself at Wikimedia, Wikipedia's foundation
The four North Korean guests and myself at Wikimedia, Wikipedia’s foundation

HACKATHON: DAY ZERO. I flew in on Friday, the day before the hackathon to meet up with Mr. Kim Heung Kwang, the executive director of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity (click here for English version) and the other three North Korean defectors who were all flying in from Seoul. The Wikimedia Foundation graciously hosted us and the Human Rights Foundation organizers for a wonderful dinner at their headquarters office in San Francisco to learn more about the individuals’ work centered on sending information into North Korea against the regime’s will. There was a lot of conversation around how the Korean wikipedia is already being sent into North Korea onto USB thumb drives, and more side discussions about how more individuals and organizations can get add to this effort.

I think that the delicious southern-inspired meal was too heavy for the defectors, so after the Wikimedia dinner, the North Korean guests, two bilingual friends, and I walked into Chinatown to eat Chinese food and have some Japanese and Chinese beer.  Interspersed with lots of laughter, Mr. Park shared stories about how he got into a lot of scuffles in Seoul for the work that he does.

HACKATHON: DAY ONE. Jetlagged, the four North Koreans and their facilitators, including myself, piled into cabs to head over to the hackathon venue where we had bagels, yogurt, and fruit for breakfast. “I don’t know how you Americans could eat bread all day long. I need rice!” one North Korean guest said.  The other three laughed, and said that he brought microwaveable rice and kim-chi, a Korean staple side dish, with him in his luggage from Seoul. Another said, ‘Don’t you bring that kim-chi out here…the Americans will run away from you if you bring that out! Instead, hand it over to me. I’ll eat it!”

Each of the four gave brief introductions about their individual defections, background stories, and their respective NGOs’ work before the eight hack teams broke out to start brainstorming, coding, and creating their tech solutions to help bring information into North Korea.

[Left] Henry Song, an incredible Korean-American translating for Mr. Kim. [Right] Mr. Kim Heung Kwang (Executive Director of North Korea Intellectual Solidarity) introducing himself.
[Left] Henry Song, an incredible Korean-American translating for Mr. Kim.
[Right] Mr. Kim Heung Kwang (Executive Director of North Korea Intellectual Solidarity) introducing himself.

Kim Heung Kwang is a North Korean defector and a former professor at Pyongyang Computer Technology University. He graduated from the Kim Chaek University of Technology in Pyongyang, where he majored in data processing. Kim pursued graduate  studies at Hamheung Computer College, where he studied operating systems, hardware technology and network theory. He spent 19 years training students for the North Korean regime’s cyberwarfare units. Kim was also in charge of analyzing seized contraband South Korean television dramas and foreign books, until he was caught renting some of the classified loot to a friend. He escaped North Korea in 2003 through China and settled in Seoul. In 2008, he founded the North Korea Intellectuals Society, a group of high-level defectors that promotes freedom, democracy, and human rights for North Korea. As the executive director of NKIS, Kim conducts research on unification, formulates and critiques ideas on how to foster North Korean civil society, and cultivates the skills of North Korean defector intellectuals.

Ms. Yeon-Mi Park speaking about how watching an illegal copy of "The Titanic" convinced her to defect from North Korea
Ms. Yeon-Mi Park speaking about how watching an illegal copy of “The Titanic” convinced her to defect from North Korea

Park Yeonmi is a North Korean refugee and an expert on the country’s black market economy. As a child, Park lived as part of North Korea’s elite until the regime punished her father and banished him and his family to the northern part of the country, where poverty, starvation, and “disappearances” became a part of everyday life. Park and her family escaped North Korea through China and Mongolia in 2007. She is currently a media fellow at Freedom Factory, a think tank based in Seoul, and studies at Dongguk University. She co-hosts the “Casey and Yeon Mi Show,’’ a podcast about North Korean issues, and is featured on “Now On My Way to Meet You,” a TV show in which North Korean women discuss their past and present lives.

Mr. Choi, speaking on behalf of the North Korea Strategy Center in Seoul. He was a dentist in North Korea
Mr. Choi, speaking on behalf of the North Korea Strategy Center in Seoul. He was a dentist in North Korea

Choi Song Il is a North Korean refugee who worked as a dentist before escaping the country. Choi lived in China for two years until he was caught and repatriated back to North Korea, where he was incarcerated in a detention facility for six months. On his second attempt to escape, Choi successfully arrived in South Korea. He obtained an undergraduate degree from Yonsei University in management and worked in the private sector for five years. Determined to work for the rights of North Koreans, Choi joined the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC) in 2010. Choi has conducted many research projects regarding the North Korean people’s change of consciousness and oversees NKSC’s North Korean field operations and media dissemination projects. He recently obtained a master’s degree in political science with a special focus on North Korea.

Mr. Park Sang-Hak, aka "Enemy Zero" according to the North Korean government. He leads the Fighters for Free North Korea
Mr. Park Sang-Hak, aka “Enemy Zero” according to the North Korean government. He leads the Fighters for Free North Korea

Park Sang Hak is a North Korean defector and democracy activist. Park worked in a propaganda unit of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League until 1999, when his father, a spy for the government, defected with his family to South Korea. Since then, Park has worked for the democratization of his homeland. He is the chairman of Fighters for a Free North Korea, an organization that uses helium-nitrogen balloons to float human rights and pro-democracy literature, DVDs, USB drives, and transistor radios from South Korea into North Korea. Park’s educational efforts constitute such a serious threat to the Kim dictatorship’s mass brainwashing system that he is known as “enemy zero”. As a result, Park was the target of an assassination attempt in 2011 at the hands of a North Korean spy using poisoned needles.

Mr. Kim speaking with one of the hackathon teams on Day 1 of the hackathon
Mr. Kim speaking with one of the hackathon teams on Day 1 of the hackathon

Each of the eight teams broke into groups and sat around this warehouse space and spewed ideas about how they could get information in and out of the country. Ideas ranged from super low tech (e.g. slingshots to get USBs from China into North Korea across the Tumen River) to much more high tech ideas that used satellite networks to enable intra-country communication among North Koreans. My North Korean friends kept sharing their surprise over how so many non-ethnic Korean Americans were so passionate about coming up with solutions help inform North Koreans about the outside world. This hackathon scene, where people were scrambling to come up with ideas to help North Koreans,would never happen in South Korea, they said.

HACKATHON: DAY TWO.  We spent the morning speaking to journalists and chatting about different ideas over delicious Ritual coffee in the hackathon space. In the early afternoon, each of the eight teams presented their ideas for four minutes each and answered questions for two minutes each. You could see the winning team “Team SkyLife” present their idea in the photo below.


“The winners were Team Skylife, made up of Matthew Lee, a former Google employee now working on a stealth start-up in San Francisco, and Justice and Madison Suh, a 17-year-old brother-sister pair who had flown from Virginia to compete in the event. Their winning concept involved the use of Luneberg lens research to develop flat, iPad-sized satellite receivers that could be snuck into North Korea through smuggling routes on the Chinese border, or floated into the country via hydrogen balloons from South Korea. These portable, easily concealable devices would hook into the pre-existing coaxial and USB technology commonly found in North Korea and pick up signals from Skylife, a South Korean broadcaster that sends more than 200 channels of programming to customers in China. The panel of judges – consisting of North Korean defectors, Silicon Valley tech executives, and HRF senior staff – were impressed by the potential impact the concept could have on information flow into the world’s most closed society.” [HRF]


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After the event ended, the different teams continued to develop their ideas in order to possibly implement them with the help of the North Koreans’ contacts and NGOs. Afterwards, the North Korean guests and I went to a dinner with the San Francisco chapter of South Korea’s National Reunification Advisory Council, who asked a lot of questions to our guests about their lives and experiences from defection to their assimilation process in South Korea.  Exhausted, the four guests, Henry Song, and I went to Twin Peaks close to midnight to try to catch a glimpse of the city through the fog. Though we couldn’t see past 5 feet in front of us, it was nice to “drink the clouds” as Mr. Kim said.


After lunch with Wael Ghonim, the Googler who is famous for having had a significant impact on the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 using the internet, facebook, and other forms of social media. His co-founders of Byte, Osman and Karim also joined us!
After lunch with Wael Ghonim, the Googler who is famous for having had a significant impact on the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 using the internet, facebook, and other forms of social media. His co-founders of Byte, Osman and Karim also joined us!

POST HACKATHON: A few of the guests stayed for the day after the hackathon, so we went sightseeing. Alex Gladstein, an associate at HRF, graciously drove us around San Francisco. It was so nice to be back in the city I lived in for two years!  Wael Ghonim, the Googler who was credited to having a significant impact on the Egyption Revolution in 2011, hosted us along with his two colleagues Osman and Karim, for lunch at a *delicious* Middle Eastern restaurant in Sunnyvale. Over lamb and yogurt, we talked about shadow internet and its various applications. After having baklava to finish our meal, our team drove up to Stanford to check out its beautiful campus. We continued to drive north around Corona Heights, Hayes valley (my old neighborhood!), and had coffee, beer, and wine to enjoy the afternoon.

A selfie with our North Korean guests and Alex Gladstein, an associate at the Human Rights Foundation, at the top of
A selfie with our North Korean guests and Alex Gladstein, an associate at the Human Rights Foundation, at the top of

I look them to where I used to work and took a ton of photos! I'm including just a few here
I look them to where I used to work and took a ton of photos! I’m including just a few here

Yeon-Mi Park at my old office!
Yeon-Mi Park at my old office!













Spending four full days with old and new friends from North Korea centered on the idea to bring information into North Korea was both heartbreaking and inspiring.  If you are interested in helping any of these organizations, please let me know!


See below for news articles about the hackathon:


Silicon Valley Takes on North Korea

the guardian logo

Hackers design clandestine aerials to help North Koreans watch banned TV


Can Hackers Help Save North Korea?

Idea to develop flat TV antennas wins “Hack North Korea” competition


How Silicon Valley wants to hack North Korea

Gizmodo logo

Plan for Secret Satellite Receivers Wins Hackathon to Help North Korea


Hack North Korea: Silicon Valley Wants To Bring Information To Pariah State

10 North Korean Millennials in New York City, July 17, 2014


For those of you in New York City who are interested in learning about North Korean youth's identity in South Korea, please register for this event.  The Korean American Community Foundation is sponsoring "North Korean Millenials: Exploring Identity and Place" on Thursday, July 17, 2014 in the Engelman Recital Hall at Baruch Performing Arts Center.


Registration is at 6:30pm; Program is 7:00-9:00pm.

Lessons from our visit to the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights

As part of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Asia Leadership Trek, my 40 classmates and I visited the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul to learn about the abhorrent human rights situation in North Korea.  Personally, I have been learning about these issues for almost 10 years now, but the shocking nature of the situation still hasn’t worn off, nor should it. I have heard so much about this organization’s good work and was excited to finally meet some of the individuals who are helping to run this organization.

The event kicked off with a 20-minute documentary that shared some facts about the North Korean prison camps, forced labor, widespread starvation, public executions, and the horrendous realities around defections. Familiar faces such as Kim Young-Soon and Kang Chol-Hwan came on the screen and spoke about their experiences when they were living under this regime.  I first heard some sniffles and gasps, and as the documentary continued to play, I heard soft sobbing behind me (I sat in the front row), and classmates offering tissues to each other.  After the documentary ended, Michele and Miri briefly introduced Ms. Kim EunJu to speak about her experiences living inside North Korea before she defected.

Ms. EunJu Kim. The young, petite woman who was sitting a few feet away from us was sharing about her experiences in a world that was a universe away. Though it’s easy to know the fact that North Korea is less than 60 miles north of where we were sitting, it was just so difficult to understand just how such a horrific place could exist this day in age, in a place so geographically close to us.   As I looked around the room, I saw my classmates and friends—people representing 22 nations—who were hanging onto every word coming out of this young woman’s mouth.  People’s eyes were glued to Ms. EunJu, and for those who were meeting a North Korean defector for the first time, or were learning about the human rights violations in the regime for the first time, I could tell that their worlds were being transformed.

Classmates formed a circle around me during our 10-minute break to ask me question after question to clarify their understanding of the social, legal, political, and humanitarian situation of North Korean citizens and refugees. Why and, more simply, how could the Chinese government forcibly repatriate these refugees? How could they be considered as economic migrants and not refugees who were desperately seeking political asylum and basic liberties? How could our governments, and private actors not doing more to bring down this despicable, despicable regime?

After we left the Citizens’ Alliance office and loaded the bus, my classmates continued to ask me questions centered more on actions that they could take. My 40 classmates and friends, dressed in somewhat geeky red Asia Leadership Trek polo shirts, come from 22 nations, and are diplomats, military servicemen, deans of universities, politicians, consultants, and NGO members back home. A 90-minute meeting with this organization with a purpose-driven passion instilled outrage, heartbreak, and disbelief in these 40 people, and I have faith that these classmates and I will work to transform this outrage of the egregious injustices we learned about into practical, compassionate action to help create changes for North Korean people.

A baby has no past. Yet political constructs dividing countries like North and South Korea determine people’s fates before they are even born.  Human beings are born as equal creatures in the eyes of God and I am fascinated by how humanity — with all of its complexities and similarities– is segregated by man-made boundaries and are destined to fulfill extraordinarily different fates that are largely determined by the political circumstances into which they are born.  The sheer arbitrariness of people’s birthplaces obligates some people with moral duties to serve those who have been born in countries with fewer opportunities and freedoms.  As my classmates and I have been fortunate enough to have been born in countries whose political leaderships allows us freedom and education, I believe we all have a moral duty to channel our fervent commitment to human equality to help protect the basic rights for those citizens who are born under this regime that refuses to protect and provide for its citizens.

Some people may be skeptical of the awareness-raising efforts of the North Korean human rights situation. After all, naming and shaming this regime hasn’t led to any meaningful changes to its behavior towards its citizens. However, I have full faith that with more and more passionate, compassionate, and empowered people who are educated with these issues, changes to the human rights situation inside this regime, and the very existence of this regime, will occur in our lifetime.



Classmate from Denmark asking a question to the panel
Classmate from Denmark asking a question to the panel


Classmates and I chatting during break
Classmates and I chatting during break

My NPR Interview in light of the UN’s recent REPORT on North Korea’s human rights violations

I was asked to give an NPR interview in light of the UN’s recent release of a report on North Korea’s unspeakable human rights violations. It’s a short 12-minute interview. Please listen to it if you get a chance; the focus is on having family members (who I have never met) living in such a different–horrifically different–place while I am living here in the USA. It’s a heartbreaking reality. Here is the link.

One of this week’s top news items have been about the UN’s release of a 372-page report describing North Korea’s systematic human rights violations against its citizens, likening their systems and punishments to those of Nazis.  As you may be well aware of, this report describes North Korea forcing women to undergo horrific and brutal abortions and young mothers to drown their own newborn babies, starving and executing hundreds of thousands of detainees in secret political prison camps, just to name a few.

Let’s continue to educate ourselves about the unbelievable–wait, scratch that– the unfortunately BELIEVABLE injustices and systematic violations of human dignity that take place every second. Education motivates action and change.

Below are a few images that North Korean defectors who gave testimonies before the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea provided.



A Memory from my trip to North Korea

Me and some of my friends at the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il statues in Pyongyang, the first stop on our tour in North Korea.

During my recent trip to North Korea that I co-organized for 24 Harvard classmates and friends, one particularly memorable moment took place at the DMZ from the DPRK’s side, where I saw both the North Korean and South Korean flags straddling the 38th parallel.  I carefully struck up a conversation with a North Korean military officer in his mid-50s.  At first, he scowled and demanded that I, a Korean-speaking American, stand away from him.  I kept near him, pretending that I had no wiggle room amidst the dozens of fellow tourists who were also at the DMZ.

After his military colleagues cleared the area, the officer casually covered his mouth with a folder, looked away from me, and in a low voice started asking me questions about my life in America.   After all, he couldn’t have his colleagues see him be so friendly with a foreigner, much less an ethnic Korean American.  He asked me what life was like in America, what my parents did, and how I learned to speak Korean in America.  His questions were rooted in sheer, nonjudgmental curiosity. For ten minutes, we stood by each other in a crowd while looking in opposite directions, and carried this clandestine conversation in Korean while having both of our mouths covered.

After telling me that he full-heartedly wishes that the two Koreas reunify so that all Korean people, hanminjok, can live together in peace, he asked me:

“Do I look like your father?”

I didn’t really know what he was asking, so when I asked him to ask his question again, he said:

“Well, I know that we’re hanminjok, but I’m curious if I look like a Korean man in the United States. Am I as tall as him? Same face?” 

I choked back tears, and made some joke about how handsome the military officer was.  The man was significantly shorter, thinner, and had much darker skin than my father.  I was standing in front of the flesh and blood that was the result of a divided country, 60 years later, in human form.  My father could have easily been born in North Korea, but was born 35 miles south of the DMZ, and his fate could not have been more different than of the man I was standing in front of.

A rush of military officers headed our way, which abruptly ended our guarded conversation.  The officer shoved me out of the way and barked at me to not stand so close.  I tried to wave goodbye, but he ignored me.  I’m pretty sure that he was acting like so because he was in the company of his colleagues. When it was time for my group to get back on the bus, I caught his eye and winked.  Without smiling, he winked back.



Me and a North Korean military woman officer in front of the USS Pueblo
Me and a North Korean military woman officer in front of the USS Pueblo. Our birthdays are two months apart!

Me and an oncologist at the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital.
Me and an oncologist at the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital.

Me and an employee at the Pyongyang movie studio. He has worked here for 40 years.
Me and an employee at the Pyongyang movie studio. He has worked here for 40 years.

Me and a little girl I met in Wonsan. She called me, 'dong-ji,' which means 'comrade' in Korean. In South Korea, a girl her age would have called me 'unie,' which means older sister.
Me and a little girl I met in Wonsan. She called me, ‘dong-ji,’ which means ‘comrade’ in Korean. In South Korea, a girl her age would have called me ‘unie,’ which means ‘older sister.’

A traffic controller in Pyongyang
A traffic controller in Pyongyang

Me in Pyongyang
Me in Pyongyang

Me and an HKS classmate at the Juche tower
Me and an HKS classmate at the Juche tower

A bunch of North Korean people wanted to take this photo with us because they were excited to meet Korean-speaking Americans (me and the guy in yellow). They called this a family photo! 🙂

Wonsan, North Korea
Wonsan, North Korea

Fisherman in Wonsan, North Korea
Fisherman in Wonsan, North Korea

Little students in Wonsan, North Korea (took this photo from our bus)
Little students in Wonsan, North Korea (took this photo from our bus)

Grand People’s Study Hall in Pyongyang

Grand People's Study Hall in Pyongyang, North Korea
Grand People’s Study Hall in Pyongyang, North Korea

A group photo  in front of the Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il mausoleum. The cute kids in yellow were there to take photos with tourists
A group photo in front of the Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il mausoleum. The cute kids in yellow were there to take photos with tourists

Arirang (The Mass Games)

Arirang (The Mass Games)

Arirang (The Mass Games)
Arirang (The Mass Games)

[1] I co-organized a Harvard University Kennedy School Trek for 24 classmates and friends to North Korea in August, 2013.

“Compared to Other Inmates, My Suffering is Nothing”: An Evening with an Escapee from Camp 14


On November 19th, 2012, our North Korea Study Group at HKS hosted Mr. Shin Dong Hyuk to be a guest speaker for over 225 students, professors, and community members. For over an hour, Mr. Shin shared stories and lessons from being born and raised for 23 years in a North Korean total-control zone concentration camp.  In this post, I will share with you the stories that he shared with us that night.  I've added links to articles, a new book, and new film about his life at the end of this post as well.

Mr. Shin was born in Camp 14, a North Korean total-control zone political prison camp, just 50 miles north of Pyongyang, the country's capital city. Estimated to have been built in 1959, the camp's purpose is to imprison North Koreans deemed to be politically unreliable, classified as the "irredeemables," and exploit them of hard labor until their deaths. Whether a prisoner is born into, or sentenced to, this camp, one is destined to die in the camp.  There is no hope for release.

Prison guards, on their own accord, pick productive inmates and reward them by permitting them to spend a few evenings together.  Mr. Shin likened this prison marriage to a forced mating between a pair of beasts in heat in a zoo.  Offspring of these marriages are born in the absence of hospitals, nurses, OBGYN doctors, or conditions that are remotely sanitary.  Later on in the speech, Mr. Shin said there is only one freedom in this camp, which is the freedom to be born.  A child is permitted to depend on her mother only when inside the womb.  Once a child exits the womb, she must survive on her own.  The first thing a baby sees upon opening her eyes is armed prison guards.  Since infancy, a baby is trained to know, and know only, the prison camp regulations. The worst crime a prisoner could commit was to attempt to flee the camp.  This was ingrained in his mind and body since childhood.

In addition to the camp regulations, he was taught simple arithmetic, and how to read and write. Mr. Shin and the other children raised in the camp were not even deemed worthy of learning about the regime's royal family. After all, they were destined to provide slave labor until their deaths in the camp.  He never heard of Kim Il-Sung, or Kim Jong-Il during the 23 years he lived in Camp 14.  Only after escaping the camp and reaching free lands did he learn that what he experienced—a life stripped of every freedom and basic human right—was a harrowing aberration of human existence.

He said to the crowd, "What you think is so horrific was so normal for me in the camp. It was absolutely normal to see public executions and casually watch beatings of prisoners that led to their deaths." He recalled one of his earliest memories; at the age of 5 or 6, he went to a public execution, which all camp prisoners were required to attend. He was so curious as to why thousands of people were gathering, so he elbowed his way to the front of the crowd. He vividly remembers falling backwards from the shock of the sounds of bullets spraying the prisoner.

There were two executions annually, one in March and the other in November. Each event comprised one to three cursed protagonists. With the exception of some rare special occasion, all inmates were required to attend and watch the executions of their fellow prisoners. The goal of these camp events was to scare other inmates from "straying."

Mr. Shin recalls not flinching or shedding a tear when his mother and brother were executed. Mr. Shin even sat in the front row of the audience. Not crying at executions was not only normal, but was also the acceptable response. When Shin overheard his mother and brother planning to escape the camp, he instinctively responded by finding the nearest guard and repeating to him what he had overheard. (Readers, remember that attempting to flee the camp is the worst crime an inmate could commit.) Shin knew that the punishment for NOT turning in an inmate who was planning to escape was the murder of the overhearer's entire family, himself included.

Shin was taken to a secret underground prison inside the camp, and was extensively tortured for days to extract more information from him. The guards wanted to make sure he was telling the truth, and that he was not co-plotting with them.  Tortures included having lit charcoals under his back while being hung from his four limbs, and having thick metal hooks pierced through his groin to keep him from writhing.  Mr. Shin said he called his biological parents "Mom" and "Dad" only because these were arbitrary terms designated to these people. He never had a concept of family, filial piety, or any sense of love and obligation.

Mr. Shin says that his story could be "nothing, compared to the experiences of other inmates. Compared to theirs, my suffering is nothing." He recalls one time, he dropped a heavy machine while working, and a guard sliced part of his finger off as casual punishment. Mr. Shin said, that he could've had an arm or a leg cut off. Or even have been killed. He shared with us that he was "grateful that I could survive and talk to you today and merely have a finger severed."  He felt deeply grateful that he didn't die from the extensive tortures he experienced, and has been living in a free world for six years since his escape.

In 2010, he met with an ICC member in London who said that she had no way to help Shin because she had no evidence to help people in North Korean camps. Mr. Shin said that he heard the same sentiment from many people.

"Where is the evidence of your story?"

At this point of the lecture, Mr. Shin flipped through a few Power point photos that showed millions of emaciated corpses in massive graves at various Nazi concentration camps, and rows of skulls that formerly belonged to over 2 million people who were exterminated by the Khmer Rouge in killing fields.  Mr. Shin said, with the evidence of dead bodies, the ICC punished Nazi leaders and Khmer Rouge ringleaders. "We think of Cambodian killing fields as history that took place forty long years ago. 'Never again,' we think."

He pleaded, "We're mistaken!

"If we have such evidence from North Korea, I wouldn't be standing before you today."  So many people cried throughout the world when seeing the photos taken of those killed throughout Europe, Kosovo, Cambodia, and other places. Must we wait for polished photos in nice, published reports from the UN to circulate until we act?  My activism is NOT to induce tears for the dead, but to save the dying and keep them alive."

"What can you do to help?" Shin asked the audience. "I want to share my heart tonight and ask you to please save North Korean people before such massive evidence will ever exist.  Heart-wrenching photos do not change dictators.  The genocides and massive killings that happened 60, 40, 20 years ago is not mere history. It is happening today, and will continue to happen until we bring change.

Readers, check out some photos from that night. Also if you’re interested in learning more about his story, please check out the following links:

[BOOK] Escape from Camp 14:One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West

[Interview] Anderson Cooper interviews Shin Dong Hyuk

[clip with Anderson Cooper] One of my favorite foods now: In-N-Out burgers from California

[Google Tech Talk] Born and Raised in a Concentration Camp
Shin Dong Hyuk and me after the event

After the talk, we took him a mini surprise birthday celebration. It was his 30th birthday that day, and his first birthday cake. After blowing out the candle, he said “I’m happy.” When someone asked him what he meant by “happy,” he said, “it’s something you say when your face feels it ought to smile.”

Shin Dong-Hyuk’s birthday cake! (Dong is his first name)

Kim Young Soon: Sentenced to Yodok Concentration Camp for Knowing Kim Jong-Il’s Secret Consort

Kim Young Soon with Professor Lee (Tufts University Professor who was translating for our event)


On October 5, 2012, the North Korea Study Group at HKS hosted Ms. Kim Young Soon, a former celebrated dancer in North Korea.  In her 2008 book entitled “I was Sung Hye-rim’s Friend,” Ms. Kim described her ordeal at the hands of Kim Jong-Il, whom she never met. In an excerpt of the book, she wrote, “I was sent to Yodeok prison camp because I knew Kim Jong Il was with Sung Hye-rim. Even Kim Il-sung was not aware of Kim Jong Il’s relationship with Sung. Kim Jong Il, a would-be No.1 leader of the republic, was in a relationship with a (once) married woman would be a huge scandal, and Kim Jong Il tried to keep the highest security.”

In this blog post, I will write about what Ms. Kim shared with her audience members at our event last month. Ms. Kim and her family were part of the North Korean elite because her ancestors were anti-Japanese fighters when Korea was colonized by Japan in the early twentieth century.  She was sentenced to Yodok political prison camp for 9 years. Her crime? She was school friends with Sung Hye-Rim, a famous North Korean actress who became a secret consort of Kim Jong-Il, and bore Kim Jong-Nam, the Dear Leader’s eldest son.

Ms. Kim and Ms. Sung were classmates and friends from high school throughout college.  One day, Ms. Sung told Ms. Kim that she was invited to Chamber #5, a residence reserved for the regime’s ruling clan.  After the state made the connection that Ms. Kim’s friendship with Ms. Sung led to a civilian knowing too much of the Dear Leader’s private affairs, Ms. Kim and her entire family were sentenced to Yodok political prison camp.  In the camp, Ms. Kim’s husband was ratted out for an alleged crime by an inmate, and he was taken to the total-control zone portion of Yodok.  Her entire family—parents, three sons, one daughter, and husband–passed away in the camp.  Ms. Kim, along with numerous defectors, argue that Yodok and the other North Korean concentration camps have been modeled after Auschwitz under Kim Il-Sung’s reign.

North Korean civilians are sentenced to Yodok camp with zero knowledge of their crimes. They don’t know if they committed a crime –and if so, the nature of the crime–, or if they were sentenced due to the guilt-by-association policy. If the latter, whose crime are they associated with?  Guilt-by-association is an antiquated policy that was employed during Korea’s Chosun Dynasty in order to cut off the seeds of the next generation of criminals.  North Korea is the only regime that exercises this policy today.  It was only ten years after being released from Yodok that Ms. Kim was told why she landed in the prison camp.

Political prisoners ate anything that “flew, crawled, or grew in the field.”  While in the camp, Ms. Kim witnessed mothers desperately try everything to keep their emaciated children alive.  One common ‘medicinal’ practice was to cut open a pregnant rat to harvest its fetuses, roast the tiny creatures, and feed this to sick human babies in the camp.  This was believed to cure human diseases.  On multiple occasions, she–along with the other estimated 200,000 concentration camp prisoners–were forced to watch public executions of camp prisoners who were caught while trying to escape the prison.

After speaking about Yodok, Ms. Kim spoke more broadly about the regime.  By the 1980s, Kim Il-Sung’s leadership had purged all factious groups. The fall of the Soviet Union—on whom North Korea had been heavily dependent for economic support—devastated North Korea’s public distribution system. Years later, one domestic campaign to showcase the power of its regime widely circulated the movie, The Titanic, among its citizens. The regime declared that the sinking of the ship on April 15, 1912 was symbolic of the fall of evil capitalism and the rise of the Sun of North Korea.

Despite the regime’s attempt to demonize the United States by blaming the U.S. for all its own misfortunes, and calling it a wolf that can never turn into a pure sheep, it continues to pay its elites in $ USD.

She then spoke of the luxury that shrouds the ruling family. Among the numerous mansions that exist for the elite, Mansion #72 is Kim Il-Sung’s mansion. All rice that enters these mansions is called Rice #1. Rice #2 is the name designated for emergency rice for war. Every article of clothing for the Kim family is specially designed for the members.  She gave several anecdotes of the extremely fresh, large, and exotic seafood that were sent into Pyongyang daily with special government funds. If the seafood delivery food trains were to ever be late, the supervisor of the train would be killed immediately. As one could imagine, these trains were never late. Ms. Kim knew Mr. Han, the supervisor of Train #8 and #9. He was a master of the sea surrounding North Korea, and he was responsible for delivering goods to the Kim family.

Kim Il-Sung had told Kim Jong-Il that the successor must concentrate on keeping the party and military officials appeased. Do not “waste time on the economy,” Ms. Kim quoted the Dear Leader. She claims that Kim Il-Sung argued that a reformed (and presumably a more open) economy would inevitably lead to the country’s demise and the successor’s death.

Despite Ms. Kim’s ardent hope for reunification, she understands that this is not possible in the near future with North Korea pointing 15,000 artillery units at South Korea.

She escaped North Korea on February 1, 2001 and entered South Korea in November of 2003.  She serves as the vice president of the Seoul-based group Committee for the Democratization of North Korea.

For more information about Ms. Kim Young Soon, please read this Reuters article.

Throughout our event, Ms. Kim repeatedly encouraged her audience members to watch ‘Yodok Stories,’ a controversial theater play that chronicles the experiences of several North Korean survivors of this political prison camp. This documentary captures the play and  interviews of defectors who helped create the play. Please watch this — Ms. Kim tells you so!  The actual movie link:

Yodok Stories

Here are the transcripts of her  testimony for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights (September 20, 2011)

Here is an interview that a report for Radio Free Asia conducted with Ms. Kim

As always, please do not hesitate to reach out with questions or comments.

Unforgettable Team of Ten: North Korean participants at Google Illicit Networks Conference 2012

Back in July, I organized the North Korean panel at Google’s conference on Illicit Networks in Westlake, California.  Ranging from the regime’s elite party members to the country’s forgotten orphans, ten North Korean defectors flew in from Seoul to join us at the INFO conference. Each shared parts of his/her extraordinary story of survival and excruciatingly painful quest for freedom. Their experiences, individually and collectively, is a testament to the invincibility of human resilience and spirit. I had the opportunity to work with this team of ten for the seven months leading up to the conference–from arranging flight tickets (which was a nightmare) to crafting the North Korean panel and lab. I wish I could share every detail of this unforgettable team of ten.  Since no one has the time for that, I will share some paraphrased stories and personal take-aways from the four days I spent with this team in Westlake Village, California.

Paralyzing fear of North Korean spies
Only after the conference ended did I learn that some men doubled up in their hotel rooms out of extreme fear that there were North Korean spies at the conference to kidnap or kill them. One night, a pair of men took turns staying up and keeping guard of the windows and room door, just in case. Hyeon kept asking me for floor plans of the Four Seasons hotel because he wanted to memorize the exits for each floor in case he had to escape from spies. These men were not watching for anyone in particular; they were scared to death of any spy sent from the regime.

Border guard who defected
Hyeon was a border guard (about 5 feet 4 inches tall) who was trained to shoot to kill North Koreans attempting to escape into China. (Defection is a highly treasonous crime that warrants sentences to prison camps or execution. Relatives are also punished per the state’s guilt-by-association policy.) He used to let some defectors pass when no guard was watching, an act that put his family at risk. A close friend once begged for Hyeon to let a poor orphan pass into China. Even after heated arguments with his wife, who insisted that her husband not engage in a bribeless illicit act, Hyeon let the defector pass. Months after, Hyeon defected himself. He crossed the Tumen River, and for ten full minutes, he sobbed for the first time, feeling unbearably guilty for betraying his country. A year later, he sent for his wife and four year-old son, both of whom live with him in Seoul now.

The orphan that Hyeon let pass into China is “Paul,” who also joined us at INFO. Check out one of my previous posts where I wrote extensively about my chat with “Paul.”

Free as nature
On the second night of the conference, the 250 participants sat at assigned tables for dinner. Against a beautiful backdrop of mountains, trees, and a constructed waterfall, I sat next to Mrs. Choe, a former elite party member who bragged about being overweight while living in Pyongyang to show off that she used to be part of the wealthy elite class (she now runs a small restaurant in Seoul). She constantly scanned the sea of well-dressed and happy people around her, and for the first time, she let her cold guard down. She tearfully told me, “People here remind me of nature. Just like the trees, wind, and water, people here behave so freely. They laugh whenever they want, can eat and wear whatever they want, and say whatever they want. I even heard someone joking about Obama’s ears! I would love for my former 250 employees at my clothing factory in North Korea to experience such freedom. Some of my employees had to choose which child to feed at night because of the constant scarcity of food.”

Pool and Politics
After dinner each night, some people would head into the hotel bar and hang out. Around midnight, I saw two separate games of pool going on; one among North Koreans, and another with a more diverse group of players. I suggested that they merge teams, and for the next hour or so, I saw North Korean defectors, a former Ugandan child soldier and an American diplomat play a game of pool, laughing, drinking, and betting with one another, all the while having no idea what the other person was saying, yet having one hell of a time. While watching that boisterous game, I thought of just how arbitrary political boundaries and consequent ethnicities are. The handsome brunette U.S. diplomat happened to be born in a free country, where kids don’t see corpses of political prisoners carted around villages to scare people from defecting, which is what his pool teammates from North Korea were all too familiar with. The five foot-three 29 year-old North Korean who shared pool tips with his new Ugandan friend shared photos of their wife and girlfriend, and without sharing a single word in common, they were able to connect over unconditionally loving another human being.

Two North Korean participants and a former Ugandan child soldier playing pool after a long day of conference sessions

Why do Americans care?
Throughout the conference, some of the North Koreans repeatedly asked people, especially American men (who they are trained to hate), “why do you care about North Korea and our people?” Everyone’s answer was the same: “because we’re all equally human, and since North Koreans happen to be born under difficult circumstances, we want to do what we can to share what we have and simply help.” People were utterly stunned by this answer. The very people who they thought killed and ate Korean babies, indiscriminately raped women, and were waging war on North Korea were saying that they thought North Koreans were equal to Americans, and they were interested in listening to their stories and doing what they could to help. This was absolutely shocking to this team.

Per the panelists’ request, we agreed to have the North Korea panel off the record. The lab, however, was based on Mr. Heung-Kwang Kim’s organization North Korea Intellectual Solidarity, which he is quite public about. If you’d like more information about these particular ten participants, please do not hesitate to reach out to me.

“Paul” and Jane Rosenthal (Co-founder of Tribeca Film Festival) after a conference session

“Paul,” myself, and Jared Cohen (the director of Google Ideas) after breakfast during which Paul told Jared about YeoMyung School, the school he attends for North Korean defectors in Seoul.

Paul and Eric Schmidt (Google’s chairman) during lunch

My Chat with “Paul” (25 year-old North Korean Defector) at Google Ideas Illicit Networks Conference (INFO Summit 2012)

As Google’s North Korea Lead, I’ve been working on several projects related to connecting North Korean defectors with various online resources. One recent project was to manage the North Korean panel and workshop (or “lab”) at the Google Ideas INFO Summit that took place in Westlake Village, CA from July 16-18 2012. I invited 10 North Koreans currently living in Seoul to the conference, and their panel and workshop were the highlights of the conference! More on this later. One of the ten North Korean defectors whom I invited was especially captivating. “Paul,” who is just two months younger than I am, had a completely different upbringing than I did, having been born and raised in North Korea before he recently defected. At this conference, we snuck away to a quiet room where he opened up to me and told me his extraordinary story of his will to survive and seek freedom.

At the Google Ideas INFO Summit, Paul had the opportunity to share his story with many of the 250 participants and attendees, including Jane Rosenthal (the co-founder of Tribeca Film Festival), Ronald Noble (the Secretary General of Interpol), Jared Cohen (the Director of Google Ideas), and Eric Schmidt (the Chairman of Google). Each of his new friends were entranced by his personal history, which he told with very little emotion.

Paul led a fairly ordinary life in North Korea, often doing various errands for his mother by illegally sneaking in and out of China in order to make a few dollars to buy food for the two of them. (The average North Korean makes $3-5 USD, and must participate in criminalized market activity to survive.) When he was 15 years old, he saw his mother being arrested for doing business with people outside the country and, according to Section 233 of the North Korean law, she was sentenced to Women’s Prison No. 11 in the South Pyongyang province.  Two years later, he learned that she passed away in the camp. He told me that this was the saddest day of his life, for his mother unfairly died at the hands of the North Korean government for merely trying to survive. She did not try to defect, or sell any national secrets. She invested the money she made in China into the North Korean markets, yet she was tried as a national criminal.

In his early teens, Paul developed a brother-like relationship with a North Korean border guard who was trained to shoot-to-kill defectors. For the equivalent of $100 USD, Paul would bribe the guard to sneak North Koreans across the Tumen River and into China. Paul would pay the $100/head fee–and sometimes a pack of cigarettes– to the guard upon his return to North Korea.

After walking the glittering streets of China and illegally watching South Korean dramas that were smuggled into his province in North Korea, Paul decided to defect and hide in China until he could figure out a way to make his way into South Korea. He was unfortunately caught, and was forcibly repatriated back to North Korea, where he was severely tortured daily for eight months, and then was sentenced to a political prison camp for three years.

When he entered the camp for the first time, he was terrified at the sight of emaciated prisoners with hollowed eyes and no human dignity. They performed meaningless and arduous labor tasks from sunrise to sundown, and suffered from not only physical torture, but also excruciating mental pain. People whispered to him that they did not know what crimes they were being sentenced for, yet they did not have the strength to complain. One day, he was sent to the prison ‘hospital,’ where people laid on wooden boards shoulder to shoulder. He saw people cultivate diseases in their own bodies so that they could expedite their deaths, since committing suicide was considered a crime that would punish their loved ones living outside the camps. At the young age of 17, he developed the sense to predict when somebody would die, based on their breathing patterns. Paul recalls thinking, “that man has about two more days left before he leaves this earth.” After a bedmate would pass, Paul would not report his/her death because he would be able to eat the corpse’s food ration. He would continue to sleep next to corpses and eat their foods until nurses noticed the rotting bodies, after which patients would be tasked with carrying the stiff corpses out into a mass open grave. He left the hospital, and went back his barracks, even more determined to survive and defect from this country.

Shortly after he was released from his camp, he defected once more, and after hiding in China for several months, he successfully made his way into Seoul, where he resides today.  What shocked me most about his story was not the specific details of a peer who was born and raised under horrific circumstances, but was Paul’s belief that his life was a merely ordinary and normal one. Paul and I communicate about 3-4 times a week via email, Google+, and Kakao talk, and he tells me of the new surprises that he continues to experiences while living in a free society.  He realizes that his life in North Korea is one that no person–much less a sovereign government–should ever witness and tolerate. Paul tell me that “[his] body and mind are just starting to understand the novel ideas of human rights and freedoms that [he] is eligible to own, merely by being human.”

Let’s hope that more people around the world are able to learn this lesson that Paul is starting to understand, and that we all continue to educate ourselves with stories such as Paul’s. Only through education and compassion could we help prevent a repeat of such travesties against human life.

If you have any questions about this article or would like to know more about Paul, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble giving Paul his own tie after learning that Paul has never worn a tie in his life
Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble giving Paul his own tie after learning that Paul has never worn a tie in his life

Paul and Jieun Baek with Jared Cohen after having breakfast together at the Google Ideas INFO Summit at the Four Seasons Hotel
Paul and Jieun Baek with Jared Cohen after having breakfast together at the Google Ideas INFO Summit at the Four Seasons Hotel

Paul and Jane Rosenthal during a coffee break inside the main conference room at INFO Summit
Paul and Jane Rosenthal during a coffee break inside the main conference room at INFO Summit