Two defectors from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea spoke at Duke Saturday about their escape from North Korea, surveillance in the country and the urgency of reuniting with their families.
Sam Kim and Bomhyang Lee, two North Korean refugees, spoke to an audience of approximately 200 students and faculty in Schiciano Auditorium in CIEMAS. With senior Ricky Park and freshman John Jeong translating, the students spoke about their experiences escaping from North Korea before accepting questions from the audience.
Kim said that he escaped from North Korea to China three years ago, when he was 20 years old. Before that, he worked on a farm. He said he had wanted to join the North Korean military after graduating high school, but that his sister had previously defected to China and her actions had labeled his entire family as traitors, which barred him from the military.
“I thought to myself that I had nothing I could do, and I had finally become a labor slave in North Korea,” Kim said. “The most laborious part of farming is planting rice April through June. After work my hands and feet were white because of the water, and I could not stand because of the pain in my back.”
Kim said that his whole family was under surveillance for most of his life in North Korea.
“After my sister left from North Korea to China, my family was under surveillance. The parents of my best friends were also under surveillance.” Kim said. “So I had to live for about 12 years under surveillance. I could never express how I felt without being overheard.”
Lee, 19, said she left North Korea when she was 16 years old. Both Lee and Kim left North Korea via a route that took them first to China, then Laos, then Thailand and finally to South Korea—a journey that took about two months. Speaking about defectors who lived in China, Lee noted that their lives are more difficult than students might think,
“When they eventually get caught by the North Korean police, they get sent back to North Korea,” Lee said. “They might cry and be really sad, but no one will know that they’re crying. The most important thing we should be doing is understand their situation and cry with them. If the news spreads and the story spreads, the laws might change and the reality might change as well.”
Both Kim and Lee still have family in North Korea.
“Bringing back my family members is my greatest priority. I think about it every day,” Lee said. “But it’s very hard. There are a lot of money problems and security problems as well. It costs about 15,000 dollars.”
The two defectors, who now live in South Korea, met Duke students participating in DukeEngage South Korea last summer. Through the program, Duke students teach English at Mulmangcho School, a school for North Korean defectors. The students began their efforts to bring Kim and Lee to visit Duke after hearing their stories. Sophomore Andrew Cho, one of the organizers, said he was pleased with how the event went, noting in particular the high turnout.
“Our intention was really to promote interest and generate awareness on the humanness of North Korea, more so than how the media portrays North Korea as a dictatorship government and that they’re evil people,” Cho said. “Really, there are millions of citizens who live there, just like the U.S. and just like any other country anywhere in the world. All they want to do is live a happy life.”
Kim and Lee will be starting college next month after graduating from Mulmangcho School. Kim will attend Korea National University of Transportation and Lee will attend Hanyang University.
“I’m finally able to pursue my dream,” Kim said.
Hwansoo Kim, associate professor of religious studies, gave an introduction on North Korea before the students spoke.
“Today’s event is part of our attempt to foster person-to-person engagement and also begin reflecting on ourselves,” he said.
Lee and Kim are hopeful about the value of dialogue between North Koreans and the rest of the world.
“In the Korean peninsula, although it is a very small land, there is a very sad history,” Kim said. “If every one of you develops interest in the story of North Korea, it will facilitate the [end] of the sad story of North Korea. Your interest will be the hope of the North Korean people.”