Political Minutes: Euna Lee on Human Rights

On Friday night, the Columbia University chapter of Liberty in North Korea (LINK) presented a night with journalist, activist, and former North Korea detainee Euna Lee. She spoke about her own story as a reporter and activist (including her detention in Pyongyang), as well as the harrowing and inspiring stories of brave North Korean defectors, and outlined ways in which the foreign community can support the efforts of defectors, detainees, and activists. Early inspiration and activism among North Korean defectors

Born in South Korea, Lee grew up with a biased view of her North Korean neighbors. She made sure to point out that although the North Korean population is heavily bombarded with propaganda on a daily basis, the South Korea of her childhood was also non-democratic and full of anti-North propaganda. Seeing the way that South Korea’s military dictatorship mistreated some of its citizens made her sensitive from an early age to the plights of those who cannot speak out for themselves.

She did not lose her passion for helping others after moving to the United States, and in the mid-2000s, she decided that she had to do something to help North Korean defectors living in hiding in Northern China. These refugees live in constant fear — if they are discovered by the Chinese authorities, they will be “repatriated” back to North Korea, where they will face interrogation, torture, and possibly even death. Living with poor Chinese and ethnic Korean farmers in the north of China is difficult, but for many of these refugees, the idea of returning to North Korea is unthinkable.

The most shocking aspect of the life led by these people is the fate of the female defectors. According to Lee, most of the females who cross the border in China are sold into some form of sexual slavery. Some are forced into prostitution, and others are sold as wives to poor Chinese farmers (due to the one-child policy in China, there is a shortage of women and a bride can fetch a fair price). One such woman, whom Lee referred to as “Wai,” was in her forties and already had four children in North Korea when she found herself sold as a bride to a Chinese farmer. Any children resulting from marriages between Chinese farmers and North Korean women live in a similar state of limbo, as there is no way for them to go to school without reporting who their mother is—but if they report her, there is no other option but for her to be taken back to North Korea.

Another woman in her twenties, whom Lee called “Yang,” was forced to undress in front of a computer for Chinese sex customers. In her off time, she was chained to the heater in a small room. This kind of abuse is commonplace for these refugees, and the only alternative to living this shadow life is to be discovered and repatriated by the Chinese authorities.

Detainment in Pyongyang 

The most poignant part of Ms. Lee’s presentation came when she spoke of her own detainment in North Korea after being captured by the North Korean army on the Chinese border. She and her American journalist companion (who did not speak Korean) were jailed separately in Pyongyang and interrogated daily. Her only hope came from the knowledge that people in the outside world would keep her story alive and in knowing that her family was waiting for her.

During her time as a detainee in Pyongyang, Lee had many revelations about the North Korean people. She realized just how similar they are in many ways to South Koreans, eating the same food, speaking the same language. She sees the two countries as one nation divided by nothing more than ideology. At the same time, her Korean heritage was not always an advantage: Many North Koreans viewed her as a racial traitor, and her embrace of capitalism (and American citizenship) made her a traitor to her own people. Because of this, she recalls one North Korean judge vowed to have her punished in the worst possible way during her detainment. Even still, Lee still declares that she has “more compassion than bitterness” toward the North Korean people.

From her guards and others with whom she had direct contact, she also saw firsthand the effects of ideology on the everyday activities and attitudes of North Koreans. She described them all as “mentally ready for war” every day. They often spoke of how lucky they were to live in North Korea, as they had seen images of South Koreans and other people of capitalist countries begging on the streets and wailing because they could not find a job. This North Korean nationalism, however, must be taken with a grain of salt. Lee emphasized that these were among the privileged people living in the capital, and furthermore they were in the army and certainly afraid of being reported if they exhibited anything but the utmost loyalty. Lee’s experiences as a detainee are a rare glimpse into a very different world.

What can we do about it? 

The stories of such desperate people living in constant fear is moving and shocking, but I always feel powerless to do anything. What effect can I possibly hope to have on the Chinese government vis-à-vis their repatriation policies? What can I possibly do to alleviate the suffering of North Koreans living in China?

Lee’s answer is simple: Be aware, make others aware, and make sure your voices are heard by those in power. If not for those who kept her story alive while she was in North Korea, she may never have seen freedom again. With regard to the refugees in China, she says that the voices of the people can make all the difference in Chinese repatriation policies. I remain skeptical that China will ever be willing to change this policy, but raising awareness of the dire straits of these defectors can only help. Making sure that we never forget the plight of the North Korean people is the most important thing any of us can do, and that is the main message of Lee’s talk. If you speak out on their behalf, you are a voice for the voiceless.

Euna Lee is a journalist and activist, and has made a documentary about North Korean refugees in China, has written a book on her experiences in North Korea (entitled The World is Bigger Now), and is currently working on a documentary about the lives of Iraqi refugees in the United States. I thank her and the members of CU-LINK for a wonderful and eye-opening evening. If we all take upon ourselves the mantle of to merely be aware of these issues, we can change the world for the better.