Beating the system

"Beating the system" Continued...

Issue: "Inside Election 2012," Oct. 20, 2012

Suh later met a manager of a South Korean pub in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, who connected him with a South Korean consul very different from the one in Hanoi. This consul booked a hotel room for Suh and his son. When they were about to eat another meager dinner of boiled corn, a South Korean pastor arrived with clothes, shoes, and several traditional Korean dishes cooked by his wife. 

Suh and his son traveled to Bangkok, where they lived six months in an apartment with three other North Korean defectors. He finally received a South Korean passport, lived three years in Seoul, and saw again his wife who also managed to escape.  

Currently, Suh and his family live in Los Angeles under refugee status. His whole family professes Christ and goes to church together every Sunday. Suh still has daily struggles. He still has trouble trusting people, even other Christians, and especially South Koreans. He can’t find work because he can barely string together an English sentence; his wife works in a Korean massage parlor. 

Suh also misses his hometown in North Korea, and dearly wishes to return so he can evangelize his relatives—but he doesn’t believe that will happen. He follows news about North Korea with a mix of skepticism and hope, desiring reunification but believing he won’t see it in his lifetime. Still, he says, he feels at peace now, a luxury he never enjoyed before. 

Slow to change

Advocates for North Korean refugees long for more support from South Koreans

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Will 2 million Korean-Americans pressure the next president and Congress to make human rights in North Korea more than an afterthought?

The Hudson Institute’s Michael Horowitz recalls past grassroots campaigns in the United States—to free Soviet Jewry, bring down South Africa’s apartheid regime, and stop Sudan’s government from terrorizing the people of southern Sudan and Darfur—and says the same thing could happen if Korean-American churches take the lead. 

Two-thirds of Korean-Americans are churchgoers, and occasionally they have stirred. In 2004 the inaugural conference of the Korean Church Coalition (KCC) for North Korea Freedom saw more than 2,000 pastors praying for the North Korean people. In 2005, 2008, and again this year KCC organized prayer vigils and conferences. But Horowitz says KCC has not brought consistent pressure on politicians: He says Korean-Americans, a powerful and rich demographic, can quickly affect U.S. policy if leaders push hard.

KCC executive director Sam Kim insists that his organization is bringing about change, but on a different scale than what Horowitz envisions: KCC represents thousands of churches and “cannot make a stand where we are critical of the government and members of Congress. We don’t go and threaten them.” Kim says 100 high-school students his organization brought to Washington this summer learned, “They can make a difference and they start speaking out more … in a peaceful, prayerful, and nonconfrontational manner.”

Hannah Song, the president of LiNK (Liberty in North Korea), a grassroots organization that aids and protects North Korean refugees, says North Korea should not be an issue only for Koreans. LiNK formerly targeted Korean-American college students, but its headquarters in Torrance, Calif., now includes workers from various ethnicities. Last year LiNK interns presented speeches and documentaries at 800 events in high schools, colleges, churches, and community centers in 43 American states and three Canadian provinces. But some Korean churches decline invitations because they’re “not interested.”

Song criticizes media coverage of North Korea, pointing to headlines that either gossip about Kim Jong Un’s pretty female companion, or politicize the matter by focusing on nuclear threats: “It can be very frustrating and challenging because then most people will say, ‘I don’t want to get involved in political things.’ We’re working to try to help the people. That shouldn’t be a political issue.” —S.L.

New era, old antagonism

South Korean activist holds placard outside the Chinese embassy demanding that Beijing scrap plans to repatriate arrested refugees from North Korea.
Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images
South Korean activist holds placard outside the Chinese embassy demanding that Beijing scrap plans to repatriate arrested refugees from North Korea.

The United States, mostly concerned about North Korea’s nuclear weapons, sometimes pressures the regime by threatening to withdraw food aid. China doesn’t want North Korea tinkering with nuclear weapons any more than the United States does, but China also is getting tougher on border controls: It claims that North Korean escapees are “economic migrants,” not refugees—ignoring the reality that any North Koreans it deports will face severe punishment back home. 

South Korea is at the mercy of the two. It needs U.S. support and military power, even as its younger generation simmers with anti-American sentiments. The older generation still hopes the country will be unified, but many younger South Koreans prefer the country to stay divided because they fear that the poverty-stricken north would leech the south’s resources. The more than 23,000 North Korean refugees in South Korea who live on government support do not relieve South Koreans’ negative image of North Koreans.

North Korea, meanwhile, will not shut down its nuclear weapon plans or move away from humanitarian atrocities any time soon. Despite hopeful talks about Kim Jong Un’s policy shifts, the new leader’s first act was to direct guards to shoot to kill any defectors crossing borders to China. Prison camps and public executions still exist, as does deathly antagonism against Christianity. —S.L.

Sophia Lee
Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD Magazine. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.


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