Western Authors and North Korea

Perhaps a few generations ago most Western societies looked upon North Korea with fear and trepidation, having been raised in a time that identified North Korea as a threat during the Cold War. However, now it seems that the image of fear has been replaced with one that revolves around a fascination with devastation and morbidity. The recent popularity of novels written by Western authors about North Korea, such as Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the Westand Brandon W. Jones’s All Woman and Springtime, reveals the growth of the West’s captivation with the tales of the dark lives that the people of North Korea lead. The recent surge of new information coming from novels, which give the West a look into the enigmatic and mysterious self-enclosed world that is North Korea, may not necessarily be written with the intention of shocking and disturbing readers. But many seem to be written with the implication that they are exposing the ugly side of North Korean politics and society. Continue reading

A Glimpse into the Lives of the Women of the Coalition for North Korean Women’s Rights

Journey for Survival: A Report on Female North Korean Refugees and Human Trafficking published by the Coalition for North Korean Women’s Rights gives a look into individual women’s experiences of hardship in their struggles to find hope. Along with an in-depth account of the state of affairs in North Korea, Journey for Survival provides its readers with direct quotes from the hundreds of women of the coalition working to spread word of their own trials in order to protect the human rights of thousands more struggling in North Korea or journeying to South Korea. Continue reading

The Coalition for North Korean Women’s Rights: Part II

 

Before looking into the individual experiences of the women of the Coalition for North Korean Women’s Rights, it is worthwhile to explore North Korean society, the women’s struggles within that society and also in China. Notorious for male dominance and paternalism, North Korean society relies on women to sustain the system that has been in place since the leadership of Kim Il Sung. Although Journey for Survival indicates that women became a larger part of the economy after the financial crisis of the 1990s, the testimonies that follow its introductory pages reveal that violence has been projected against them both while they lived in North Korea and when they journeyed abroad in search of food and work to provide for their families.

According to Journey for Survival, most defectors come from Hangyeongbuk-do and Yanggang-do because these regions, which are closest to the border between North Korea and China, are the first victims of any standstill in the distribution of food. This is especially because the region is home to people from the lower classes. Consequently, most of the early defectors originated from this area; however, as of late, members of the middle class have also started to migrate in search of something new because information about possible escape routes have spread and the opportunity for a different kind of life in South Korea has grown more attractive to the masses (Journey for Survival, 14). Continue reading

The Coalition for North Korean Women’s Rights: Part I

 

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. Continue reading

Escape Art and Propaganda: Part III

Before I search for other traces of art in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, I aim to publicize a few more interesting works of pop art (and propaganda) created by the escape artist Song Byeok. The two pieces “Fall into My Arms” (above) and “Take Off Your Clothes” (below) both feature the late Kim Jong Il in unconventional forms.

“Fall into My Arms” features Kim Jong Il as the female partner of a dancing couple. He smiles as he quite literally falls into the arms of his male companion as if he were truly tripping over his own feet and pouring his full weight onto the sensuous male supporting him on the dance floor. As he dances, Kim Jong Il maintains his notorious grin and his iconic sunglasses. Song’s painting makes the former leader of the North Korean regime appear like one of the celebrities chosen to compete in the popular television series, Dancing with the Stars. And Kim Jong Il is certainly a star in the eyes of the people of North Korea since, as Song states in his interview with Ferguson, “They believe they are so much better off than the rest of the world because of their two leaders, who are like two suns.” Kim Jong Il is a star that shines brighter than the millions of stars that form our galaxy – he is as radiant as the sun. Continue reading

Escape Art and Propaganda: Part II

Continuing my first article on the pop art by Song Byeok, a former party member and propaganda artist of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, this article takes a look into one of Song’s notable pieces to explore his relationship to his former homeland and the ideas that one can glean from the image “Flower Children.”

Looking at the image of “Flower Children,” the young girls stand in their school uniform either waving excitedly or smiling at the audience despite the holes in their shoes symbolizing their poverty. Moreover, all of their eyes are closed. Looking more closely at the faces of each individual child, though two or three appear genuinely ecstatic, the other girls have more faces – as they smile and accept or turn a blind eye to the way things are in North Korea, the people have grown weary as their circumstances have yet to change. Paul Ferguson also addresses this painting in his CNN article; Ferguson writes, “The girls in “Flower Children” are waving and posing for foreigners in the way they’ve been trained: brimming with confidence that they live in the world’s greatest country. Song painted them with their eyes closed, blind to the reality of their poverty.” As mentioned in the first part of these articles about Song’s artwork, Song admits that his initial reasons for leaving North Korea temporarily, when his father was still living, revolved around the need for food and work; likewise, most other North Koreans also defect for similar reasons. Continue reading

Escape Art and Propaganda: Part I

In all of the novels that I have read about dystopias, art and literature always suffer a blow in some way. So, having grown up in a post-Cold War society that has taught me to associate its remnants with the dystopias of the literature required for a trimester of high school English, I wondered in what ways art and literature may be restrained in North Korea. Looking for signs of self-expression, I came across the artist Song Byeok, a former propaganda artist who defected from North Korea and continues to produce art in South Korea. In Paul Ferguson’s CNN article on the success of Song’s exhibition this past winter, I learned that, despite being a full member of the communist party of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Song Byeok also suffered from the food shortages and famines of the late twentieth century, which forced him to cross the Tumen River in search of food in China. In need of food, he and his father attempted to cross the river together. Unfortunately, his father drowned in the act. Though a devoted party member who openly praised the North Korean people and culture as superior, Song still faced confinement in a North Korean detention center after authorities caught him searching the river for his father’s body. Not receiving understanding from those who had captured him after the death of his father, Song decided to defect. Continue reading

Visiting North Korea during the Era of Kim Jong Un

In recent news, North Korea has prepared to launch a satellite into space. However, this move has been met with much antagonism by the United States because it seems to defy the motions of the United Nations should the satellite be a move to test missile technology that would one day send threats of nuclear warfare. The BBC’s broadcaster, Damian Grammaticas, who is based in Beijing, China, gained permission to enter North Korea at the time of this controversy, symbolic of the transparency with which the North Korean authorities intended to launch the satellite. In his BBC article, Grammaticas relates that the North Korean authorities wanted to launch the satellite in commemoration of the hundredth birthday of Kim Il Sung, the founding father of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Throughout his article, “Exploring North Korea’s Contradictions,” Grammaticas describes his impressions of the North Korean landscape. Visiting the countryside outside of Pyongyang, Grammaticas emphasizes the emptiness of the roads and the bleakness of the empty shop windows as he exits the city. Of the city itself, Grammaticas relays, “Being here, in the world’s last Stalinist state, feels like being transported back in time. North Korea often looks like a place marooned, a survivor from an age when Soviet republics, with their strongmen rulers, were common.” He then continues the article with a explanation of the preparation Pyongyang’s people made for the celebrations that would enliven the next few days – city repairs were made, flowers were assembled, roadsides were cleaned, images of Kim Il Sung were hung throughout the city, plans for the launch of the satellite were being settled. Continue reading

A Song to Imjin River

I first heard the folk song, Imjin River, when I watched the Japanese film Pacchigi, the Korean word for head-butt. The 2004 film took place in 1968 Kyoto, a time when the Korean resident youngsters living in ghettos had taken on a hostile stance toward the discriminatory Japanese environment that confronted them. In 1965, the Japanese government had recognized the South Korean government, but did not initiate any policy with the North Korean regime. In 1965, Koreans living in Japan were offered South Korean citizenship or remained stateless if they either supported the North Korean regime or adhered to their hopes for a unified Korea in the near future by refusing South Korean citizenship.[1] The film featured the gang of a Chosen (North-Korean affiliated) high school “butt heads” with the gang of a local Japanese high school. Continue reading

Intimacy in North Korea

Last summer I spent two weeks as an English language partner to North Korean defector middle and high school students in a small town on the outskirts of Seoul. After four years, I found myself once again immersed in the complex jungle of teenage angst, hormones, and emotions. Well, I know from my university experience that those unpredictable attitudes and moods don’t necessarily go away when you get older and that everyone manages to overcome his inner-teenager individually. But, I remember that while we did our best to think about what kind of activities would be both fun and advantageous to our seventeen through twenty-year-old students, at least one person would say something along the lines of our need to understand that these students weren’t just defectors preparing for new lives in South Korea; they were also hormonally driven teenagers on the brink of young love, experiencing their first infatuations, and learning the art of flirtation. I did not notice too many hormonal imbalances erupting before my eyes, but what about attraction and relationships in North Korea? To go even further, what about sex in North Korea?

“A North Korean couple has a picnic along the Taedong River in Pyongyang, North Korea” (AP Photo/Vincent Yu).

Notorious for a reputation of severe control and discipline, to what extent does the North Korean regime play a role in sexual intimacy? According to Radio Free Asia, the simple answer is that “when it comes to the privacy of the bedroom, even the all-powerful North Korean Workers’ Party is largely hands-off” (Love and Sex in North Korea). Continue reading

Love Across Borders

Have you ever fallen in love? Not the kind where you want to be with someone every minute of the day, but the kind where you would wait for that person every minute of the day. Perhaps, people experience these feelings more often as they move farther apart chasing after dreams or journeying in search of themselves in the transnational world we inhabit. But Pham Ngoc Canh, a man from Vietnam, had fallen in love with a woman he had met when he had studied chemistry as a university student. As Mr. Canh reminisces about his sweetheart, he recalls that he first caught a glimpse of her through a laboratory door. Even in that moment, he had wished to marry her, but something beyond his control kept them from being together for thirty years.

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Dinner at Pyongyang Restaurant at Seven?

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – an area renowned for isolation, shrouding itself in mystery – runs a chain of restaurants throughout Asia. Named after North Korea’s capital city, the restaurants, originally conceived to entice travelling South Korean businessmen hungry for Korean classics like kimchi or northern specialties like Pyongyang cold noodles or dangogi, have emerged in areas near the China-North Korean border, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Jakarta, and, most recently, Amsterdam. In the words of Australian journalist Sebastian Strangio, who enjoyed a meal at the Pyongyang restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the restaurant is brimming with curious customers, an overwhelming majority of which is South Korean. At Pyongyang Restaurant, customers can get an intriguing view of the lifestyles of North Koreans allowed to work outside of the borders of the DPRK. Continue reading

United States Refugee Program

Curious about the community of North Korean refugees in the United States, I tried to dig up any information that I could in regards to adjustments of defectors here. I did not expect to find too much information available on the Internet easily since many refugees remain vulnerable after defection considering that family members often still live in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. To my surprise, I did come across a very interesting article about a particular family of refugees in America on the Hankyoreh newspaper website. Continue reading

North Korean Defectors in the United States

Image representing face of refugees from Eritrea

Officially back on campus, I decided to get involved with Yale’s branch of THiNK, There’s Hope in North Korea, once again. Thinking back to my previous year as a volunteer for the organization, I remembered that we had been fortunate enough to hear the story of a North Korean defector now living in America. She had described how she had tried to defect from North Korea on more than one occasion. After the first attempt, she, her brother, and mother had been captured and sent to a detention center where they had been tortured. After she had one day escaped, she started a new life in the United States. Unfortunately, I do not remember enough of her story to form a narrative of her personal journey to America, whether or not she spent a lot of time in a third country or in South Korea before coming here. I only remember that she occasionally shares her experiences with others in the same way that she had for us undergraduate students. Continue reading

The Death of Kim Jong-Il: Painting Perspective Part III

Having looked at various articles after the death of Kim Jong-Il, I started to reflect upon the Korean friends who identified with North Korea in Japan and the few North Korean people that I knew personally. Of course, their opinions could not be anymore diverse because of the different backgrounds they had come from or the different perspectives that they held. Also, the relationship that my Korean friends in Japan had to North Korea is very different from the students who had actually been born in North Korea and escaped while they were still so young.

While I researched the Korean minority in Japan last summer before my internship with the Ministry of Unification, I had the opportunity to interview a few people who had visited North Korea while they were high school students. Until North Korean education schools in Japan had started to request more government support from the Japanese government, the classrooms had featured pictures of the two Kim leaders as a regulation declared by North Korean administration who had in the past received visits from teachers who would report on the progress of the children’s education. Therefore, I had asked my interviewees about their thoughts on Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il.

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The Death of Kim Jong-Il: Painting Perspective Part II

As a continuation of my previous article, I would like to look at one of many articles written by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) regarding the death of Kim Jong-Il. I have chosen to compare and contrast Fox News with the BBC because it is the largest broadcaster in the world and because of my own appreciation for its world news broadcasts.

The particular article that I will explore in this continuation directly addresses the question that so many people had asked me. The article is titled: “How Genuine are the Tears in North Korea.” As an introduction to the article, Tom Geoghegan writes, “The outpouring of grief in North Korea after the passing of Kim Jong-Il has been fervent and widespread. So are the people sincerely feeling this loss or are they behaving as they think they should?” Continue reading

The Death of Kim Jong-Il: Painting Perspective Part I

After the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il became known internationally, several friends and relatives who had known that I had worked as a volunteer English tutor at Hangyeore, a boarding school for North Korean refugee students, asked me if the emotional outburst and fits of tears that news reports presented were real. But I found that I did not know how to answer them because I think that a lot of the media already implies that the feelings of devotion expressed by the people to such a leader as Kim Jong-Il have no potential for authenticity. Taken out of context or applied to the messages that the media wants to convey, perhaps the tears of the North Korean people seem far-fetched or unjustifiable.

Although I do not intend to ignore violations of human rights occurring in North Korea with my more critical approach to the media, I think that it is unfair to put so much trust into the media’s portrayal of North Korea’s situation when understanding of North Korea still has its limitations since the North Korean state continues its policy of isolation. In my next few articles I hope to explore the way the death of Kim Jong-Il has been portrayed by a few different perspectives in the media to show how the media creates different images of the truth.

In this article, I would like to take a look at the image Fox News presents in regards to North Korea. I have chosen to look at Fox News because of its prevalence in the United States – the channel is estimated to air in about 102 million households – and its international presence – Fox News airs in Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Israel, Pakistan, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and several other nations. Also I would like to take a look at Fox News because of its notoriety for promoting conservative political positions. Continue reading

Unification: Not Only the Future but Also the Present

 

In my last article, I discussed the various different groups of defectors entering South Korea before and after 1994. In this article, I intend to go over the difficulties defectors experience in adjusting to South Korean society so that others may understand how the successful or unsuccessful integration of North Korean defectors is a reflection of the future of a unified Korean peninsula.

In my previous article, I had looked to Yoon In-Jin’s thesis North Korean Diaspora: North Korean Defectors Abroad and in South Korea for information on the diversification of North Korean defectors in South Korea. Yoon continues with a description of the stages of adjustment that defectors experience while in South Korea. After defectors undergo investigation through the Intelligence Command under the followed by rehabilitation and education at Hanawon centers, refugees are put under the guidance and protection of police officers for one or two years as of 1999. Yoon argues that the training that refugees receive at Hanawon and the guidance they receive from officers does not suffice their need for help to adjust to life in South Korea materially and mentally. Continue reading

My Road to Korea and Hangyeore

By Diana Marie Linton

A little over a year ago I had been studying in Japan and had decided to start learning Korean and Korean history when I returned for another academic year in America. At that time I had often talked about getting involved in North Korean issues because I was close to the Korean community in Japan and had heard about North Korean children who continue to suffer from the famines of the previous decades and from the uninterrupted lack of food. I had studied with a few students from South Korea during that time and I was surprised that I had more interest in human rights issues in North Korea. Because I had grown up in Los Angeles, I was very accustomed to the large Korean-American community in my neighborhood, and they had given me the impression of a very strong ethnic identity that to me would imply, if not a connection, a concern for the state of human rights in North Korea. After inquiring into the differences between the students that I had encountered in Japan and the Korean-American community I knew in America, it seems that South Koreans are more concerned with getting by – their children have to go to school, they have to pay for their daily expenses – unification would suggest an increase in taxes and economic burdens. So the issue of human rights in North Korea does not receive so much attention in everyday life and when it does it is often the same story.

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