By Sung-chul Kim, Former HRNK Intern
Translated and edited by Rosa Park
Reprinted from hrnkinsider.org on Feb. 6, 2014
I was born in socialist North Korea. I lived my life struggling to be free from hunger and had little to dream about. After that, I spent more than five years in China in fear because of my precarious status. Despite several arrests and forced repatriations to North Korea, I survived and eventually arrived in South Korea. Not until then could I have a dream and start studying. Now, I have finally experienced America, a country I had dreamed of visiting. In the United States, I finished a four-month long English class, and then completed an internship at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).
I used to look at those who got to go to school with envy when I was in North Korea and China. I wanted to go to school, playing freely and carrying a school backpack. In China, North Korean refugees don’t have access to a public education, because the Chinese government claims they are “illegal economic migrants.” That made me feel depressed over my being practically stateless. Only after I started studying in South Korea did I begin to forget my sorrow, little by little. When it came to English, I could not even distinguish uppercase and lowercase letters in the beginning. I did not know anything about subjects such as math or history. I was thirsty for learning, and worked really hard, though.
While studying at Han-dong University in Pohang, South Korea, I dreamed about going to America. I wanted to experience America for myself since I had only seen it on TV. While growing up in North Korea, I was told America was an evil empire that invaded my fatherland. When I finally found a program that offered the opportunity to study English in America, I applied and was accepted. The first time I overlooked America from the window of my airplane, I thought that it was a really huge country. When I arrived at the airport, I met those who came to greet me. They helped me open a bank account and get a mobile phone. We had a meal together and then I was given a room. Life was just about to get interesting!
Public transportation in America is not as good as in South Korea. I had to walk for at least twenty minutes to the nearest metro stop. This is a long walk by South Korean standards, but a rather short distance in America. Walking to the station, I practiced my English speaking skills with my flat mate to avoid wasting time.
After my four-month language course was over, I started looking for an internship opportunity. As soon as I found out about HRNK, I asked for a meeting with the executive director. After we sat down and had a discussion about my life, academic interests, and experience in the United States, he asked me to submit my CV, cover letter, and writing sample. A few days later, I was invited to join HRNK’s intern corps. An acquaintance of mine also introduced me to the Lantos Human Rights Commission. The Lantos Commission also offered me an internship, so I began to work for the Lantos Commission on Mondays and Tuesdays and HRNK the rest of the week.
I learned a lot at HRNK, especially about the political prison camps and leadership system of North Korea. Although I was a detainee in a mobile labor brigade myself, I realized that I did not really understand how North Korea’s vast system of unlawful imprisonment worked. I also read the book, “I Saw the Truth of History,” by Hwang Jang-yeop, while researching materials about North Korea. That book enabled me to clearly understand the way the North Korean regime works.
North Korea is a totalitarian regime. Just one spoken or written word from Kim Jung-un becomes law. I, myself, also do not know much about North Korea even though I am from North Korea. This is because it was almost impossible to get access to information about the laws of the country, or how the North Korea was run. The government never even officially acknowledged the existence of the political prison camps. Everything about North Korea was shrouded in secrecy. As soon as we are born, we learn that Kim Il-sung was our great leader, and that absolute “truth” is never to be challenged. I believed this just like many other people. Now it all seems so extreme, an insult to common sense.
While reading through materials published by HRNK, I realized the truth about North Korea that I could never have known before. Also, there were many opportunities to talk with various people whenever I attended human rights events. I talked about the methodology of unification with many people. We discussed whether sudden or gradual unification would be best for Korea. Also, we talked about whether the case of Germany can be a good model for Korea to follow. I think the German case is not suitable for Korea for two reasons. First, East and West Germany had many more exchanges between them compared to North and South Korea. For example, it was possible to watch West German TV programs in East Germany. Second, different from the current situation of North Korea, demonstrations were allowed in East Germany. Also, there are some opinions that point out that South Korea fails to embrace its 27,000 North Korean defectors while West Germany warmly welcomed more than 400,000 East Germans. The chance to discuss these ideas was a great experience for me because I was able to learn about many issues while having a discussion with others. I am especially thankful to my fellow interns and co-workers, who helped me a lot.
I learned a lot from the Lantos Human Rights Commission as well because I was able to learn about other nations’ human rights situations by attending several hearings on Capitol Hill. I learned about violations of human rights in various countries, including Haiti, Burma, Columbia, and Syria. Also, I spent a lot of time sharing North Korean culture with Americans. It was a great opportunity for me because I could talk to foreign friends about the reality of North Korea. Overall, the atmosphere of America feels much more relaxing than that of Korea. People are kind and very hospitable. I will miss America a lot. The precious time I had here, where I was so busy, has passed almost all too soon. Just when it feels like I have almost adapted to American life, it is, unfortunately, time to leave.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleague Katty Chi. A native of Chile and graduate of the London School of Economics, Katty became a North Korean human rights defender in her early 20s. Katty was chief of international affairs with the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC) in Seoul from 2010 to 2014 and worked with the Seoul Office of Liberty in North Korea (LinK) from 2019 to 2020. A remarkable member of our small North Korean human rights community, Katty brought inspiration and good humor to all. Katty passed away in Seoul this past May, at the young age of 32. She is survived by her parents and brother living in Chile. With the YPWP series, we endeavor to honor Katty’s life and work.