SEOUL (Reuters) - From the streets of Seoul to the European parliament, a new generation of North Korean defectors is stepping into the limelight, telling their personal stories to highlight the human rights abuses in their homeland.
It’s a major change for the defector community, especially in South Korea, where for years they lived on the margins of society. Most did menial jobs and kept quiet, avoiding attention for fear of being labelled a “Red” or a “Sympathiser with the North”.
Not any more.
“I plan to speak out as much as possible,” said Hyeonseo Lee, who on a recent Friday evening addressed a street rally in Seoul for an event called North Korea Freedom Week.
Lee, 33, wowed the audience at this year’s TED Conference, an international forum for people to promote their ideas. At the February gathering in Long Beach, California, Lee gave a harrowing account of life in North Korea and her eventual escape to South Korea via China, where she spent years in hiding.
Experts said it’s too early to tell what impact this newfound outspokenness will have on international policy toward North Korea, already under layers of U.N. sanctions over its banned nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
But in South Korea at least, prejudice toward defectors is ebbing away as more South Koreans hear their stories and meet them, said Shin Hyo-sook, head of the education research centre at the North Korean Refugees Foundation in Seoul.
She said younger defectors had become more vocal in making calls for change after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, himself only 30, showed no sign of wanting to improve human rights.
“I think a lot more of these younger defectors feel a kind of social responsibility to improve human rights for their people,” Shin said.
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Human rights groups estimate 200,000 prisoners languish in North Korean prisons and labour camps.
North Korea routinely condemns criticism of its rights record. A recent article by its KCNA state news agency said such scrutiny was “nothing but an unbearable insult”.
Pyongyang has also shown no sign of cooperating with a new U.N. commission of inquiry that hopes to gather information from prison camp survivors and others to document violations that may amount to crimes against humanity.
One thing defectors like Lee want to do is keep attention focused on North Korea all the time, not just when Pyongyang grabs headlines like it did recently by threatening to wage nuclear war on the United States and South Korea.
That bout of anger, which lasted two months, was partly triggered by the latest U.N. sanctions imposed on Pyongyang for its third nuclear test in February.
“North Korean human rights issues spark attention when the North Korean regime makes headlines, but that attention doesn’t last,” Lee told about 100 people at the street rally in Seoul.
The most well-known defector from North Korea, Shin Dong-hyuk, is sure to draw attention to the country’s human rights record when he addresses a session of the European parliament on the subject on Thursday.
Shin, 30, is the only known North Korean to have been born in a prison camp and to have escaped. The subject of a 2012 bestselling book called “Escape from Camp 14” by journalist Blaine Harden, Shin has spoken to media organisations around the world about his life. He wasn’t available for an interview.
Lee, who came to South Korea in 2008 after escaping via China, pulled no punches at the TED Conference.
“When I was seven years old, I saw my first public execution,” she told an audience of 1,000 people.
Her speech on the TED website has been viewed nearly 1.6 million times.
As schoolchildren, subject to daily indoctrination, teachers demanded gifts such as cash or even rabbit skins for the regime, she told Reuters. Children as young as 12 were mobilised to dig tunnels in preparation for “imminent war”.
Lee now studies English and Chinese at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. She juggles a packed schedule of interviews, speeches and events. She has two books set to be published and is meeting directors from Hollywood and Seoul for a movie version of her story.
“Thirteen minutes is all it took to reach thousands of people,” Lee said.
Nearly 25,000 North Korean defectors have come to South Korea, according to the South Korean government.
They first get interrogated by the intelligence services to weed out spies before going to a settlement centre south of Seoul for 12 weeks of training and counselling to help them adjust to life in South Korea. Defectors get subsidies for housing and study, as well as job skills training.
Nevertheless, most choose not to reveal their origins when they enter South Korean society for fear of discrimination, according to a survey conducted in 2012 by the North Korean Refugees Foundation.
A tiny number has grown so dissatisfied with life in South Korea, an affluent but highly competitive society, that they returned home and begged forgiveness for defecting.
That carries the risk of execution, although North Korea has lauded some returnees, saying they were seduced by false promises from Seoul to leave the “great republic”.
Defectors go to extraordinary lengths to escape.
Ji Seong-ho, 31, crossed the Tumen River on the border with China on handmade wooden crutches, having previously lost his left hand and leg after he fell from a moving freight train. He’d been trying to steal coal to make money.
Ji, who came to South Korea in 2006, is president of Now, Action and Unity for Human Rights (NAUH), an organisation that does broadcasts to the North via Radio Free Asia and tries to get defectors out of China.
He became an activist when he started a law degree in 2009 at Dongguk University in Seoul. There, he shared an apartment with Robert Park, a Korean-American missionary who walked across the frozen Tumen River into North Korea on Christmas Day in 2009 to protest against the regime and was arrested.
Park says he was tortured in a prison camp before he was released after 43 days.
“I feel responsible for what Robert did ... I thought, it should be us defectors leading the way to win rights for our people,” said Ji.
While young defectors are making their voices increasingly heard over the North’s human rights record, South Korea’s government usually avoids the subject for fear of antagonising Pyongyang.
Even during a period of rapprochement between the two Koreas in the early 2000s, human rights issues were rarely brought up by Seoul as it ploughed food aid and investment into the North in the hope of normalising ties.
That was the key plank of former president Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy. It ended in 2008 when Lee Myung-bak became president and took a tougher stance toward Pyongyang.
Keeping quiet is also hard-wired into the psyche of most older defectors, even now, years after they fled, many leaving family members behind.
“Of course I root for these brave voices,” said Heo Su-gyong, a defector in her 40s who works at the Rainbow Youth Centre in Seoul, an NGO for refugee welfare.
“At the same time, I am a bit concerned about these bold efforts inadvertently provoking the North Korean government. It would worsen the situation for those living in the North.”
Yun Chang-seo, 33, a South Korean singer-songwriter, used to share the mainstream view in the South that North Korea was purely a “political” issue. Then he worked with an activist from North Korea called Joseph Park on a music video last year to boost awareness of the country’s plight.
The video was called “The Day”, meaning the day the two Koreas reunify.
“What we did was unification of the Koreas, nothing grand or political, but simply bonding through music,” Yun said.
Additional reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by David Chance and Dean Yates