Refusing to accept the status quoPark Il-hwan had dreamed of leaving North Korea since he was a child. As a young adult, he found a way out via China in 1999.
America, where a grandfather lived, was his ultimate destination. But he was unable to find a way there, and ended up in Mongolia under the care of an elderly missionary couple who embraced him as their own son. After two years of wandering, he came to South Korea.
Now a law student at Korea University, the 22-year-old Mr. Park launched a student association called Korea Youth United a few months ago to raise public awareness, especially among students, about North Korean human rights issues. It’s a fledgling group of university students, several of them North Korean refugees.
“This group is unique for having North Korean defectors working with South Korean students and Chinese Korean students,” says Diana Sur, the Seoul representative of Liberation in North Korea, a like-minded U.S.-based organization known as LINK. “There is so much potential and they have credibility for [including] North Koreans.”
Korea Youth United recently joined with LINK to host a panel debate to educate students on human rights violations in North Korea and the policy of the South Korean government, and to see how the two groups could work together in the future.
About 200 people attended the conference at Yonsei University. The panel of experts at the conference included representatives from the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and Good Friends.
“The level of awareness in Korea about human rights atrocities in North Korea is almost nonexistent,” says Ms. Sur, who has also volunteered with the Democracy Network Against North Korean Gulags.
It’s been estimated that some 2 million to 3 million people have died in the North because of famine, and that 1.5 million people have been killed as political prisoners. The situation is one that Mr. Park calls unbearable and hopes one day to alleviate.
Just a beginning
But he views this as just the beginning. He grew up as the middle child, and only son, of a family in a town between Pyeongyang and Gaeseong. His grandfather had worked for the United Nations forces during the Korean War, helping them to capture Korean communists. He was also a Christian.
When the UN forces retreated south, he went with them. His wife was pregnant, however, and he told her, “It’ll be dangerous for you to travel. Stay here. I’ll be back soon.”
But the two Koreas became divided, and he never returned. For his pro-UN activities, the family he left behind in the North incurred a life of hardship. Mr. Park’s father suffered, and it was only through much effort that he was able to find employment as a weather forecaster.
While his peers in South Korea grew up playing computer games and chatting online, Mr. Park and his friends played hide and seek in the cornfields. Sometimes, they would hide so well no one would find them, and they would fall asleep there until the next morning.
In 1989, North Korea opened up briefly to the outside world for the World Festival of Youth and Students. Mr. Park’s grandfather, who now uses the name John Park, found someone who was attending the event and sent a letter to his family in North Korea. They began corresponding, sharing stories about their new lives. But then, as North Korea closed up again, the correspondence ceased.
Then one day, Mr. Park’s father told him, “Come here.”
Mr. Park followed his father to a little room, and knelt in front of him. His father asked, “How old are you?”
“15,” Mr. Park replied.
“15 is not a young age. I am old. I can’t do anything anymore,” his father said. “You have to leave. Find your grandfather in the U.S. He will help you study.”
Meeting his grandfather in America became a thought he would have right before falling asleep with a smile. He dreamed of America, the land of opportunity.
When he turned 17, Mr. Park began to seriously think about his future. At the age of 18, he would have to begin 12 years of mandatory military service. “The prime years of my life would be a blackness,” he says. “It scared me more than death.”
In the beginning of 1999, he told his father, “I will look for my grandfather.”
“I will never forget his expression,” Mr. Park says. His father’s eyes teared. He asked his son, ‘How old are you?’
“17 is not a young age. If you leave now, it will be a perfect time to go study,” his father said. Before he left, his father taught him several lessons. The one he remembers most is, “If you have good manners, people will love you.”
Mr. Park discussed his plan with no one. He walked out of the village with his father’s money, his grandfather’s address and the addresses of five people in China who could help him.
Contacts in China
In China, he was able to get in touch with some of his father’s contacts. He lived in various places, including Mongolia, for a year. He contacted his grandfather, who had remarried years ago and was living in Seattle. His grandfather flew to China several times to try to get a visa for Mr. Park, but was unsuccessful. His grandfather finally told him, “Go to [South] Korea, and then the United States.”
In March 2001, Mr. Park arrived in South Korea, where he decided to stay and study. He began learning about different ideologies, from capitalism to socialism. “Ideology sets the path a person walks on,” he says. Here, he also met other relatives, including three pastors in the family. And he began to think about what makes a person and a society.
Mr. Park said he founded Korea Youth United out of a fear of becoming someone who accepts the status quo. At that time, China was claiming that the Goguryeo kingdom had been a Chinese vassal state. Koreans were up in arms and officials traveled to China to discuss the matter.
Mr. Park thought that one day he and his peers could be those officials. The reality was that many of his fellow students were pursuing law degrees so that they could have the good life, not to better society. The thought of a country led by such people scared him.
So with a few friends, he started a club to study philosophy, current events and history. That group grew to become Korea Youth United, a fledgling association with a vision of changing “not the world, but North Korea.” Members include students from several universities. While they are trying to be nonpartisan, raising the issue of North Korea in South Korea is by nature somewhat political. Many point to apathy among students here who are more concerned with having to face an economic downfall should the Koreas be reunited than about the human rights violations occuring in North Korea.
And while Mr. Park said he’s only just begun the learning phase, he looks back on his life so far as a rich one.
“Other people may say they’ve gone through hard times, but I’ve experienced things at my age that few have,” he said. “As I live life, those experiences will be the strong foundations that prop up my life. So I don’t think of them as difficult times. I think of them as precious assets.”
by Joe Yonghee