Speaker Series #2: Week 2 Re-cap “North Korean human rights violations: an orphan’s account and recent developments in the UN’
November 5th 2014
Professor Hong Seong-Phil [Yonsei University College of Law, UN Working Group for Arbitrary Detention]
William [North Korea defector, student]
Week 2 of the Speaker Series saw a frank and inspiring presentation from our 2 guest speakers. Professor Hong shared his personal insight and experiences working in North Korean human rights advocacy over the past 2 decades, while William shared with the audience the difficulties he faced growing up as an orphan in North Korea, enduring torture and hunger, managing to escape to South Korea on his 2nd attempt. Last night’s presentation marks the first time William spoke in front of an English-speaking audience. Read on below for a quick recap of the presentations:
William studies at Dongguk University and escaped to South Korea in 2010. Before presenting, he emphasized that his story is his own and does not necessarily represent the experience of all defectors. Born in Hamgyeong Province, Wiliam has an older sister who still lives in North Korea. His father was in the police and also was a trader, but after getting in trouble with the authorities, was sent to prison. Ninety-nine percent of people say that his father is probably dead but he still holds out hope. After his father was sent to prison, William’s mother left to South Korea, leaving William without parents and having to live in an orphanage for 7 years. He survived off of food rations from the UN, though they were not adequate to provide for a full and healthy diet for the children, leading to some of them dying of malnutrition and starvation.
After graduating from the orphanage in 2005, he moved to Pyongyang- the government said he needed to work for them in order to repay everything they had done to support him as an orphan. He worked hard for three years as a laborer and wanted to join the Korean Workers Party in order to advance himself. Eventually, he was told he could never join the party because of his family background. He then escaped back to Hamgyeong and stayed with his sister, who soon after got married, so William again left.
He then tried to escape to China but was caught and forced to spend fifteen days in a box three meters wide while suffering abuse and torture. On his way to being transferred to a political prison camp he managed to escape and eventually made it to China. From China he travelled through Thailand and then came to South Korea. After entering South Korea he was able to finally reunite with his mother, whom he had not seen in thirteen years. William is currently studying police administration at Dongguk University and hopes to be a policeman just like his father. He has also participated in volunteer work in Sri Lanka and hopes to continue to learn and embrace opportunities for education and personal growth.
Professor Hong Seong-Phil
Professor Hong Seong-Phil has spent 20 years working on North Korean human rights issues. His interest in North Korea human rights at a young age led him to explore and seek out ways to become involved in North Korean human rights advocacy, which in the early 90s was a relatively nascent area of activism in South Korea. He then met Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights workers, eventually going to Tokyo to hold a conference on North Korean human rights, and then on to Prague to discuss these issues in broader international contexts. Professor Hong shared his surprise when he arrived at the Tokyo session to a room full of 200 eager journalists – he had been expecting almost no interest. At that time, around 1999-2000, it was difficult to discuss human rights issues in Tokyo due to the presence of the pro-North Korea community in Japan.
Professor Hong Song-Phil shared with an audience of 70 attendees anecdotes from his extensive and varied career from working in a subcommittee on human rights in Geneva, consulting for the ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to now teaching Law at Yonsei University and working as a Member of the Working Group for Arbitrary Detention. Professor Hong shared his insight regarding the changes in responses (from blatant rejection to abstaining) from China in the UN, regarding international pressure to recognise and indict North Korea for crimes against humanity.
To close, Professor Hong discussed two key ideas:
1. Why is North Korea so different?
– It never experienced an enlightenment period (it has gone from Japanese Imperial rule, straight into Communist military dictatorship – the North Koreans have not experience anything else)
– Could not witness neighbors opening up like the Eastern Europeans could (they could travel into Hungary, Austria and see how they were living in these countries – North Koreans cannot)
– 10% of residents live on the sacrifices of the other 90%. The 10% decides what happens to the other 90%.
2. The significance of the Commission of Inquiry (COI):
– Takes courage to say that North Korea has committed crimes against humanity
– Takes courage to name China for having a part of the responsibility
– COI lists Kim Jong-Un specifically, which is a big deal, now there should be more political leaders listed as well. The specific names should be put on a no-visa list
– China is changing slowly and is generally silent about the COI where as in the past they made more of a fuss and were vocal in rejecting
– Of course China and Russia will still veto a UN Security Council resolution but they will now have to think much more carefully about the political costs of doing so.
RSVP by 12noon Wednesday 12th November for next week’s talk: “Expediting Korean Unification: addressing North Korean human rights issues and the international community’s role”, with Bae Jung Ho [Senior Researcher of Korean Institute for National Unification], and Sarah [defector, student].