On September the 22nd, UF Malmö members and others intrigued had a rare chance to sit down and hear the story of Mi Jin, a North Korean defector. The hall in Orkanen filled up with curiosity – the lived reality of people inside North Korea remains the great unknown of our time. The experiences of this woman, defecting from the totalitarian rule of one of the world’s most isolated countries, are unimaginable to most of us. She professed in a calm and composed manner the significance of determination and defiance in a battle from destitution to a position of advocacy.
The lecture “Inside North Korea” dealt with the reality of North Koreans’ lives and the Human Rights movement for North Korea. We also had the pleasure of having South Korean Eun Kyoung, Secretary General of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea, acting as interpreter for Mi Jin and sharing her own knowledge regarding the human rights violations found by the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry.
Life in North Korea
The story that Mi Jin shared with us was a narration riddled with hardship and perseverance under the strongman rule of a totalitarian regime. She faced personal loss and famine, overcame bigotry and was forced to endure seeing her young child work instead of study just to make ends meet. Eventually she exerted all the strength she could amass to be able to perform her mission impossible escape from the most isolated country in the world. She abandoned the regime, risking it all, to be able to provide a future defined by freedom to her daughter.
Mi Jin left escaped with her 14-year-old daughter in 2009, arriving in South Korea in January 2010 after traversing Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Mi Jin emphasized on several occasions that her daughter was the core reason for leaving, because their life defined by hardships became increasingly insecure after Mi Jin’s husband died when their daughter was only 10. At this point the daughter had to quit school in order to provide for the two remaining members of the family.
What chimed clearly throughout her recollections of her past in North Korea was the arduous everyday life; getting enough money to secure sufficient amounts of food was a perpetual battle, creating a situation where merely existing in the system was a daily fight for survival: “being employed does not mean anything in North Korea”, Mi Jin declared with contempt in her voice, having reminisced on her various jobs including an army-affiliated job and selling bread in the market.
A new life
The impetus for their plans to defect came when Mi Jin was almost detained by the officials. She reminisced with reticence how a police officer tried to “make trouble”, which led her into further problems. As Mi Jin was almost sent away to a prison camp she looked back at her life – she had always been a law-abiding citizen and a patriot. The constant influx of insecurities inflicted onto her life by the authorities seemed unscrupulous.
It is at this point that she took the required steps to commence her defection. She first explored the possibility of finding a Chinese broker who could sell them into China. Finding a broker who will sell a North Korean woman to a husband in China is a common way of defecting. However this plan did not take flight because she wanted to defect with her daughter, a factor that complicated issues. Thus she was forced to study the regimen of the border patrol squads to find a weak point in order to cross the border undetected.
And in this she managed, and she and her daughter fled the country into China. The perils, however, were not over, since they were forced to make their way out of China across several other countries, finally finding refuge in South Korea.
After settling in South Korea, Mi Jin has worked as a journalist in the South Korean online magazine, DailyNK, exploring the North Korean “ins-and-outs”. Her daughter, even after being so many years away from school, was welcomed by her South Korean peers and has reveled in her studies to the extent that she has been granted a scholarship to attend university in one of the most competitive societies in the world. Time after time, Mi Jin solemnly asserted with a smile on her face how incredibly proud she is of her daughter.
Advocating for change
There is something very impressive about hearing stories of the most vulnerable or marginalized people becoming strong advocates for their rights and the rights of others, trying to highlight an abusive situation in their home country while functioning as an influencer for positive change.
Mi Jin provided us with an insight into this kind of advocacy. Mi Jin and Eun Kyoung came to Malmö from Geneva to show us the power of evidence: the data derived from the monitoring of the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry are critical for successful lobbying work.
Their visit showed us the power of relationship building – in this case engaging with the UN and other institutions and organizations. Both advocates make an effort to extend this relationship-building to potential future decision-makers and influencers which explains their eagerness to engage with students.
Mi Jin is an example to us all of co-operation of the media in raising awareness with the wider public while relentlessly telling the stories emanating from her North Korean informants still residing in the regime. Her disdain for the North Korean government became clear: advocates are able to and want to work, and it is their basic human right.
A leader cannot lead if nobody follows
Leadership takes many forms, and sometimes the underdog will go to the greatest lengths to advocate for real change. Mi Jin and Eun Kyoung’s cause, however venerable it is, requires not only their work and sacrifice, but it needs followers and support to gain momentum. On a number of occasions Mi Jin pointed out that there is too much focus on the North Korean leader, and not enough focus on the suffering and troubled everyday existence of the North Korean population. They are working to shift this focus, and we should be receptive for their plea.
By: Anna Bernard
Photo 1: Sascha Simon, all rights reserved
Photo 2: Sascha Simon, all rights reserved
Photo 3: Sascha Simon, all rights reserved