The Small Candles for North Korean Defectors at the White House Dinner Party


One page of the repatriated defectors' names that was read at the vigil.

The North Korea Freedom Coalition’s Chairwoman Suzanne Scholte organized a vigil for the repatriated North Korean defectors in China this past January. In front of the White House, I stood among what seemed to be a small and quiet group in comparison to the Free Tibet demonstrators who were standing a few yards from us. I could not help but think that the ratio of demonstrators between the two causes, not that they’re in competition with one another, reflected the levels of awareness the American public has about the human rights violations against Tibetans and those against North Koreans. Nevertheless, no matter the number, we had gathered to voice our solidarity with and the hope we have for the North Korean defectors.

The cold wind blew upon the small white candles we were holding in remembrance of those repatriated. President Hu Jintao was going to drive past us at any moment, down the lamppost-lined Pennsylvania Avenue, decorated with a triage ensemble of two American and one Chinese flags. Every news station covering Washington D.C. was covering Obama and Hu’s meeting over U.S.-China relations–with all the pomp, colonial marching band reenactments included. The sirens started ringing and police vehicles started zooming by, signaling that the President of the People’s Republic of China was on his way.

The group of NK demonstrators grew, as more joined against the crimes done to the North Korean people. A woman defector began the reading of the names of repatriated defectors forcibly taken by the Chinese police back to North Korea. Korean war veterans in embroidered caps, young children clinging to their parents, middle aged people, pastors and a handful of reporters for small NK activist publications stood in silence as the names rolled. I was asked to help and slowly read off the names on my page: Choi Sang Muk…  male 50 years old, Kim Kyoung Sook…female 25, Kim Keung Sung …5 months old.  It was hard to grasp that all of these names were of people whom we would never be able to know if they were dead or still alive. I could not help but think of the defectors our OneKorea team laughed and spoke with last summer. Are any of them related? How can I fully understand the fear and pain that Mr. Choi and Miss Kim may have experienced when returning back to their homeland, where they were bound to be put in prison or put to death? What kind of life would baby Keung Sung have led if she defected safely to South Korea?

I could see the lighted White House where famous and influential people mingled and networked under chandeliers, holding crystal champagne flutes in their hands. Lights and long candles probably adorned the dinner table. We were trying to keep our candles lit to read off North Korean people’s names while their candles were a mere accessory. How do you resolve one of the worst human rights crises in the century with a nation proactively repatriating and enabling the DPRK to commit crimes… over caviar? But that reflection is for another time.

But while standing there, holding my stuttering candle in one hand while clutching the list of names in the other, I realized: there can’t be much change. Will we only continue to share some words with the Chinese, trying to inspire or pressure them to use their influence to control the DPRK, when in fact there may not be much China can do to retract North Korea’s actions? The North Korea card at this point does not give either heavy player an advantage, and seems to have been cast aside.


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