By Hana Kim, Former HRNK Intern
Translated and edited by Rosa Park and Amanda Mortwedt
Reprinted from hrnkinsider.org on Feb. 6, 2014
I was born and finished high school in North Korea. I then spent eight years in China and five years in South Korea. I have been in the United States for eight months, but time seems to have gone by too fast. It is almost time to return to South Korea. What have I gained from my experience in America? The thought that I may not have gained anything significant worries me. I feel ashamed at the thought that I fall short of the expectations of those who supported me. However, I certainly feel like I have experienced and learned many things.
Language Study and Travel
Before coming to America, I made various plans filled with enthusiasm. My plans ranged from mastering English, traveling across the country, making American friends, and meeting people in various fields, to participating in all sorts of events, forums, and so on. It seems that I have completed most of these plans so far. I was so excited, thinking that speaking English would be natural to me once I came to America. Looking back, I find myself laughing.
Nevertheless, I still believe I have progressed. Although I am not completely satisfied, my English has become much better compared to when I could not even speak a word in front of foreigners. Most of all, it is certain that my fear of English has disappeared. When I meet Americans I try to express myself in English, despite my poor grammar. Americans praise me, saying I am good at English. I feel proud when people compliment me on my English, but I still feel ashamed of my broken English. I know I can learn English faster if I take the initiative to engage in dialogue without fear. However, I’m at the level of just listening when there is a dialogue among colleagues. Still, I am thankful that I can understand English to a higher degree, which was not possible at first.
When I was in South Korea, I wrote down a list of “My Dreams,” which included traveling to America and studying a language abroad. The four-month long language class that I took as soon as I came to the United States was especially effective. As it was an intensive course, I could actually see that my English was getting better at a rapid speed. I became confident to the point where I felt that I could go anywhere by myself without a guide.
I have been to every corner of Washington, D.C. at least once and have visited several museums. The best thing about living in D.C. has been the ability to grasp the history of America. Although traveling can be quite expensive, I did not miss an opportunity to travel and visited Luray Caverns in Virginia, New York City, and the Niagara Falls. Traveling was like a tonic for my life. Having been alone for more than ten years after I left North Korea, I was accustomed to living alone, fearlessly and confidently. However, I could not avoid feeling depressed from time to time. Whenever I was feeling gloomy, traveling helped me find strength.
South Korean Culture and My Host Family
Currently, I am doing a ‘home-stay’ by living with an ordinary American family. The host family is a young couple about my age with many young kids. They are busy because of their children but always take care of me whenever I have some trouble or need something. One of the reasons that I chose to live in a ‘home-stay’ was to experience American culture, while actually living with an American family. There is not a huge difference in family culture between South Korea and America. One thing that is strikingly distinctive, though, is that it is still not common to see husbands help with family affairs in the ordinary Korean family. However, it was always left to the husband to do the dishes in the American family I lived with. American husbands help with almost all the chores around the kitchen.
Additionally, when my host family held a party with their co-workers and neighbors, I was able to experience preparations for the party, and I learned how it works, and how to enjoy it. One clear thing I observed was that parties are totally different between Korea and America, especially when it comes to the drinking culture. It feels very classy to enjoy a party with just a couple of glasses of wine or champagne. Surely, I also like the party culture of Korea but, frankly, I prefer that of America.
I started my internship at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) after finishing four months of English language study. The moment I had dreamed of since interviewing for the internship was finally accomplished. While I was naturally interested in human rights in North Korea since I was born and raised there, I had another reason that made me determined to work for HRNK. When I was in South Korea, I worked for various human rights organizations. At that time, I distributed flyers disclosing the reality of the human rights conditions in North Korea to passers-by in the hot summer sun. Watching people passing by indifferently, I doubted whether my efforts could actually cause any change in North Korea.
Back then, I could not imagine that there would be any organization working for the human rights of North Koreans. Only after I came to America did I see the work of HRNK. I believe that if we combine our voice with America, a super power, it would be very effective for those who are struggling with a desperate reality. This is why I finally decided to work at HRNK. I began to work with the expectation that I would be able to know more about human rights and to learn sensible ways to solve the problems in North Korea.
HRNK is doing many things. First, HRNK conducts research about the reality of the human rights condition in North Korea. Second, it publishes reports based on this research to increase awareness in the international community. HRNK also rectifies misunderstandings people might have about human rights in North Korea through various events and forums. HRNK’s research materials can be used as a medium to change circumstances. Publications such as “Lives For Sale,” “Hidden Gulag,” “Taken,” and “Songbun,” should be read by those who are interested in North Korean human rights.
In my humble opinion, as a human, it goes against what is right to leave the situation of North Korea as it is. Now, following the wishes of those who work for the betterment of North Korea, a UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea has been in operation for almost a year. I hope it will have a significant impact on North Korea.
As an intern at HRNK I have had the opportunity to attend a variety of events related to North Korea. Because of this, I have realized that there is an increasing number of people working for and interested in North Korea human rights. Also, through HRNK’s publications, I have learned much more about the reality of North Korea. Although I was born and raised in North Korea, the world I experienced there was narrow. As a result, I feel so thankful that I am able to do what I want to do while eating hot meals and sleeping comfortably. Also, I inevitably feel the responsibility to do whatever I can for North Koreans.
To contribute to improving people’s consciousness about the reality of human rights in North Korea, I uploaded an essay to the HRNK blog about my experience back in North Korea. In addition, I wrote a report entitled, “Alternatives for the Improvement of Human Rights in North Korea.” While I admit that the alternatives I suggested are not suitable for the current reality, they are actions to take at some point in the future. I hope that my report will have some relevance for thorough preparation in the context of the broader picture.
There are many interns who decided to work for HRNK because of their great interests in human rights in North Korea. My supervisor and co-workers always helped me with kindness, even though they might have been uncomfortable due to my poor English. Thanks to their help, I managed to successfully accomplish my given tasks. Also, I was able to continue studying English after work. I deeply appreciate their kindness. I feel sorry, though, because it feels like I am ‘spinning my wheels’ with my English. I should study English harder and steadily after I go back to South Korea as well.
What I felt all the more keenly while living in America is that many more people than I thought are interested in North Korea. More surprisingly, there are a number of people who are actively working for human rights in North Korea. I have no doubt that these efforts of tremendous people who care about human rights can induce positive change in North Korea.
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 in May 2020, 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.