During last summer’s Ministry of Unification internship program, we interns visited a small local clothing factory where some of the North Korean women who recently defected have found work after getting adjusted to life in South Korea. While visiting the factory, we got a look around the workstation. There were a few stations set up for sewing with rows of sewing machines, large tables for cutting, and poles hanging with new coats for the upcoming fall and winter seasons. The organizers of the fieldtrip also told us a little more about the increasing number of women who have been defecting from North Korea. It was still difficult for me to keep up with the spoken Korean language, but, fortunately, they also supplied us with small books describing the women’s journeys from North to South Korea in both Korean and English. The small books, Journey for Survival: A Report on Female North Korean Refugees and Human Trafficking,were published by the Coalition for North Korean Women’s Rights explaining their humble origins and including a collection of testimonies from coalition members.
The Coalition for North Korean Women’s Rights was organized by former North Korean defector women in August 2006 to increase consciousness of women’s identity within the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea so that other individuals and organizations may help to empower the women who have defected and to raise awareness of the tragedies that have fallen upon many of the women while they lived in China. In the words of its slogan, the Coalition works to “protect defectors’ human rights, ensure their safe landing, and improve their quality of life” (Journey for Survival, 12). They host campaigns for the human rights of women and children who have managed to escape from North Korea but have yet to reach South Korea and remain scattered and isolated throughout East and Southeast Asia.
From 2008 the Coalition has worked in tandem with defector organizations based in China who also seek to rescue such stranded families and individuals. After rescuing those who still battle to find refuge in South Korea, the Coalition endeavors to help defectors attain financial independence with the government’s support by establishing such enterprises as the small clothing factory we visited in Seoul. Furthermore, the Coalition aspires to educate defector leaders in preparation for life in a unified Korea. Much of this includes encouragement of the many women who form such a large portion of all defectors from North Korea to join in as leaders of a new generation for the Korean peninsula, which will include a new, much more vulnerable class of people who will need the understanding and compassion of their more advantaged brethren.
The Coalition’s publication, Journey for Survival, directs attention to the reality that most testimonies and accounts that have been publicized for the education of those less knowledgeable about North Korean affairs have revolved around the experiences of men and formerly upper-class women even though 70% of North Korean defectors are lower class women. Not enough attention has been given to those who are in most need of help from others. Moreover, having lived outside of the radar of the media’s attention for so long, the more under-privileged women are less accustomed to speaking about their experiences than defectors who had lived “more fortunate” lives like the former party members and scholars who had defected before famine and food shortage became a bigger problem in the 1990s as mentioned in one of my previous articles. The Coalition for North Korean Women’s Rights aims to give a voice to those who have suffered most profoundly under the weight of an unjust system.
Journey to Survival is a collection of direct interviews with North Korean women defectors. The introductory pages of Journey to Survival include information about the collection of interviews from the women of the coalition. Because the women are generally hesitant about sharing their information, the Coalition for North Korean Women’s Rights arranged for other defectors to share their stories with the other women before commencing any interviews so that the women would feel more comfortable about opening up. Developing trust with their interviewers, the women gave honest testimonies in response to the honesty with which they were treated and the confidentiality promised to them so as to protect family members and loved ones who may still live in North Korea. Most of the interviewees were born between the 1960s and 1970s because their age group formed the main breadwinners of the family who were most capable of long-distance travel and most likely to find jobs. The women have spoken about leaving North Korea, living and working in China, returning to North Korea having been caught by Chinese authorities or otherwise, and transitioning to life in South Korea.
Please refer to the continuation of this story in my next article for more information about the members of the Coalition for North Korean Women’s Rights.