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.