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