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Author: South has low interest in North rights

June 15,2009

Helping refugees escape North Korea is a perilous occupation, something Chicago-born human rights worker Mike Kim will testify to.

During the four years he spent shepherding asylum seekers to safety away from the North Korea-China border, he was at times held at gun point, pursued by the public security bureau in China, put under house arrest and monitored by North Korean agents. It was a dangerous game. Activists have been murdered in China for helping refugees.

As tensions heighten on the Korean Peninsula, Kim is using his experiences with the NGO he founded, Crossing Borders, to highlight the ongoing human rights crisis in North Korea through his recently published book, “Escaping North Korea.”

In the book, he relates how he became involved with helping refugees seek asylum at consulates in China and via railway into Laos.

But U.S.-based Kim, currently in Seoul to give a series of talks including one tonight for the Royal Asiatic Society Korean Branch, is disappointed that South Koreans seem a lot less engaged with the human rights issues in the North compared to the rest of the world.

“I get the feeling after having given talks in England, Canada, Japan and the U.S. that South Korea has the lowest interest in human rights,” Kim, 32, said. “I’ve been invited to give talks by three groups in Seoul, all expats. Not one South Korean group has invited me.”

This point was raised, Kim explained, by several South Koreans at recent talks in the capital. “One senior executive told me he was embarrassed by the low profile North Korean human rights had here,” Kim said.

The author hopes his book, which has yet to find a South Korean publisher but which is selling well all over the world, and his talks will make a difference.

“I’d love to see more concern among South Koreans,” he said. Part of the problem, he believes, is that generations of South Koreans were fed propaganda about the North that has perhaps blunted their views, and recent government initiatives such as the “Sunshine Policy” promoted by former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung caused more harm than good, he added.

“I fully support engagement with the North but not at the expense of ignoring the rights issue,” he said. Mike Kim says that under the Sunshine Policy some North Korean asylum seekers were told by the South Korean government not to discuss their experiences for fear of antagonizing Pyongyang.

Regarding the two U.S. journalists, Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, recently sentenced to 12 years hard labor in the North, the author Kim is convinced they will be used as bargaining chips.

One of his Chinese colleagues at Crossing Borders was kidnapped near to where Ling and Lee were arrested while making a documentary about North Korean refugees.

“At first the North Koreans wanted our colleague to go back to China to steal two trucks. When he refused, he was asked to traffic drugs. Again he refused so they asked us for a ransom, an absurd amount. In the end we paid around $3,600 for his release. Drawing from that experience, you can say that the North is thinking, ‘what can we get?’ out of the situation with the two U.S. journalists.” Kim also said he was impressed by the recent South Korean film “Crossing” about North Korean refugees. “It was a very accurate movie,” he said.

After tonight’s talk at the RASKB, Kim flies back to Washington, D.C., to set up a business and devote more time to human rights issues. “Sex-trafficking and rape are huge problems facing North Korean asylum seekers,” he said. And he’s optimistic that more South Koreans will become concerned about the human rights issue. “When I tell my story, people are very attentive. With more opportunities to find out, people here will care more.”

The talk is at 7.30 p.m. tonight at Somerset Palace, Jongno District, central Seoul. Call (02) 763-9483 for details or visit www.raskb.com.

By Michael Gibb [michael@joongang.co.kr]


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