On December 15th 2013, a charismatic yet unassuming young man, Seongmin Lee, greeted a small room of eclectic listeners at York University with a wide and infectious smile. His English, tangled in a thick Korean accent, was nothing short of amazing considering that he was first introduced to the language only three years ago.
The entire event was informative, with representatives speaking from Han Voice, a non-profit working with North Korean refugees, as well as Susan McClelland, a well known Canadian journalist, speaking about the lives of North Korean refugee women victimized through sex trafficking. Brought to Toronto on a developmental scholarship funded by Han Voice, Seongmin spent 6 months working on bettering his English, gaining media skills and meeting politicians. At the event, Seongmin recounted his story, giving Canadians a rare look into the human experience of a North Korean refugee.
In a sense, Seongmin was fortunate to have grown-up in a North Korean border town directly across the river from China. Regardless of the fact that unauthorized movement between the two countries is still strictly forbidden, Seongmin began to cross back and forth as a young boy, exploiting weak security points. He recounts how, having made friends with a young Chinese boy, he was introduced to chocolate for the first time. This simple yet forbidden confection compelled him to search out his own items, things valuable enough with which to secure more of these delicious and forbidden goods. It wouldn’t take long for his innocent curiosity to turn into a full-time smuggling operation.With an innate acumen and the fearlessness which only a child can possess, Seongmin navigated the underbelly of cross-border smuggling between two of the most tyrannical nations on the planet. Often he was able to do so undetected, though sometimes he would have to resort to bribery. Over time, he built his networks up on either side; through suppliers, buyers, and paid guards, he was able to grow his operation into a formidable enterprise, all before he had even left his teens.
Seongmin’s story brought us into the darkness of his bedroom, the night when the secret police raided his home in search of ‘Seongmin the infamous smuggler’. A detectable sense of satisfaction passed over his face as he described their disbelief when they pulled the covers off his sleeping figure to reveal nothing more than a young boy of twelve. Though he was spared that night, he would go on to be captured, jailed, beaten, and interrogated multiple times—and each time released, either from a bribe or because of his young age.
It was the darkness of his own city–illuminated by the taunting glow from the Chinese shore–which awoke Seongmin to the fallacy all around him. How could such comparative prosperity exist if North Korea was truly the better country? How could he experience such suffering and brutality in a country which was supposed to have the greatest government? Eventually, the hypocrisy of his experiences would prove to be too great, the lie too large. He knew there was no future for him, not in North Korea.
Only a small land border exists between North and South Korea, though it is all but uncrossable, separated by a heavily guarded strip of land called the demilitarized zone (DMZ). North Koreans can receive citizenship if they make it to South Korea, but freedom, if one is brave enough to risk it, can often only be found in the hands of unscrupulous ‘brokers’. Acting effectively as human smugglers, these brokers offer to take refugees into China and occasionally onward towards Southeast Asia, in exchange for large sums of money. Refugees fleeing this way are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. In many cases, women will be sold into multiple different marriages with Chinese men in a form of sex trafficking. Abuse, neglect, and forced miscarriages are common occurrences in these relationships. If caught, escapees are sent back to North Korea and are beaten, interrogated, and sent to forced labor camps. Even if refugees can make it safely to Southeast Asia, often it is only to be greeted by an extended prison stay.
Even those North Korean refugees who are able to reach South Korea will still face a variety of obstacles. Seongmin describes experiencing a culture shock of unimaginable totality. South Koreans embrace North Korean refugees with a complex mix of scorn and indifference, acceptance and fear. For both North and South, their histories and current tensions run too deep and create a complex set of circumstances to navigate. South Korea is a highly competitive, pressurized society; the emerged and emerging middle class are bottlenecked in a competitive status struggle, one in which an underprivileged class of North Korean refugees stands very little chance.
Though Seongmin speaks of many struggles, he also speaks of the optimistic changes he sees in his own country. In the 1990s a massive governmental failure of the state-run food distribution system caused widespread famine, which estimates suggest killed between 240,000 and 3.5 million North Koreans (Noland). This is defined by Seongmin as the tipping point, where serious doubts began to arise about the stability of the communist regime, where previously-held intolerances towards private enterprise were exchanged for seeing them as the only reliable vehicle towards supporting oneself and one’s family. While frustrations still cannot be safely launched directly at the regime, Seongmin also speaks of a self-aware and frustrated North Korean population whose publically discussed personal grievances are nothing more than thinly veiled allegories for their dissension. Even Seongmin will not speak ill of the government directly, but does tell of a corrupt and broken system which survives on the backs of a poor peasant class to support an antiquated aristocracy and a privileged “Pyongyang class” of loyal politicians, diplomats, and businessmen.
Seongmin’s experiences are remarkable, and bring us a rare and important look into life inside the secluded and misunderstood country–but the real story here is Seongmin himself. His youth, his insight, and his courage represent a will towards change that is making its way out of North Korea. His presence brings with it the hope of all North Koreans looking for a way out. It is through the struggles of people like Seongmin that we are reminded of the fact that, for millions of people across this Earth, countries like Canada represent not just a border to be reached, but a promise, a promise that is made through the privilege we possess. It is by that promise that hope is born and it is through hope that progress is made. We have a responsibility to that promise, and we have a responsibility to those in search of it: to recognize them as not just an obligation, but for the immeasurable value the discovery of people like Seongmin brings to our world.