The majority of people are aware of the conditions that North Korean people suffer at the hand of the government: the so-called hermit country keeps its people under a dictatorial regime living in conditions of extreme poverty.
Because of the terrible circumstances, many North Koreans seek to escape the country to reach (in most cases) South Korea. This undertaking is not easy since many of those who attempt to run away are often caught, killed, or die during the dangerous journey. However, some people make it through this ordeal and live to tell the story. Once finally free, many of these North Korean defectors become activists to spread awareness about the injustices perpetrated by the North Korean government. Certain North Korean activists are very well-known. Such is the case for Yeonmi Park, who is very active on social media platforms such as Instagram and Youtube and has even written a book about her own experience in fleeing North Korea called To Live. Yeonmi Park has been under a lot of accusations concerning racist comments and spreading misinformation about the United States government, especially regarding issues of freedom and systemic oppression. In this article, I will delve into how North Korean defectors relate to Western problems through the lens of their experience and why their activism could get political or even controversial in consequence.
Recently, Yeonmi Park has been under fire for her opinions about freedom and racism in the United States. Coming from a country that extinguishes any human right to liberty and free speech, in many of her videos and in some statements that she has made on television, she claims that Americans do not have the right to complain about systemic racism and discrimination. In a recent appearance on Fox News (a notoriously right-wing TV network), she has stated that the United States’ future “is as bleak as North Korea’s”, referring specifically to the need to refer to people according to their preferred gender pronouns. Park has been swept up by the right-wing conservative movement, which takes pride in having celebrity North Korean defectors on their side, invalidating leftist claims of specific categories of people not having as much freedom. The credibility of being a North Korean defector plays a role in how the audience perceives Ms Park. The automatic response to any statement given by someone who has lived through the worst experiences to escape a hellish life under a dictatorial regime, and who found the opposite of that in the United States, would be, for most people, to not only believe her but also to reconsider how they view their own lives and how privileged they are to have been born and to be living in the States. This consideration leaves out, though, that as terrible as living conditions in North Korea might be, they are also extreme, and they are a reality that we do not know anything about. To invalidate the suffering of specific categories of people living in the United States by bringing in extreme examples such as North Korean defectors is not only counterproductive, but it is also perpetuating the suffering of those people who do not feel as free in the United States.
On the other hand, we ought to consider why North Korean defectors such as Yeonmi Park find safety in conservative ideals? The reason is to be found in South Korean conservative political parties, who are currently actively opposing the dictatorial North Korean regime. Therefore, it is only natural that defectors tend to support those who come to their aid in times of need. Can this be the only reason, though? I believe that those who escaped from the North Korean regime, having lived in extreme conditions in which the government constantly violated fundamental human rights, have a valid reason to believe that the issues we complain about in the Western world are somehow trivial in their eyes. That is why it is so problematic for right-wing movements to take advantage of their vulnerability about this topic to advance their cause about issues of racism and discrimination being non-existent. It is a manipulative tactic that does not serve anybody, especially the North Korean people who tell their life stories.
Another issue that has come up in the past few years regarding North Korean defectors is to which extent the recounts of their experiences are authentic. There is a lot of confusion about this topic because, on one side, these people have run away from their country for a reason. At the same time, on the other, the North Korean government is doing everything they can to put these voices to rest, with proof that some of the accounts of those who fled the country are not factual. One of the most famous cases is Shin Dong-hyuk and his story of escape from Camp 14: Dong-hyuk’s story was disproven in a video released by the North Korean government in which the refugee’s father denounced his son’s story as being fake. At this point, Dong-hyuk also admitted to parts of it not being entirely accurate. Reading and learning about this sort of problem, a few points are worth discussing. First of all, even though some parts of the story were not wholly genuine, it has been proven that the North Korean regime is currently violating human rights, and its people, especially those who live in the poorest conditions, decide to attempt to flee the country for a reason. Second of all, I believe that in the case of Shin Dong-hyuk, the actual factuality of his recount is, albeit important, not as big of an issue, since his story is written in a book called Escape from Camp-14, which might justify some parts of it not being authentic or somehow adapted to fit the narrative of the story and to make the book more appealing. Finally, although it is undeniably problematic when the account of a North Korean defector is found not to be accurate, it is also pivotal to take into account the fact that it is in the best interest of the North Korean government itself to disprove what the people who fled the country are telling about it. The proof lies in the videos and in the material which comes from people who visited North Korea as tourists and who, by only having seen the capital city Pyongyang, describe the country as very well organised and clean, which is proof of the fact that that is the image the government wants outsiders to have of the country. I believe that North Korea’s regime is exciting to explore, mainly because there has to be something that we can do against human rights violations. The people living in that country have such a different perspective on the world and on life itself that when we hear accounts of those who managed to run away, we are often taken aback. It is natural to consider that we might not have it as bad compared to what people go through in North Korea and how limited their freedom is. On the other hand, it is very wrong to compare, and North Korean defectors should know better than that.