The Aquariums of Pyongyang: a book review and interview with a teacher

Having worked in the field of North Korean human rights, I come across accounts of defectors’ experiences in North Korea quite often. However, I am ashamed to admit that it took me years to finally get around to reading this book. Of course, it wasn’t because I had never heard of it until now. Just about everyone I know that works in the field has read The Aquariums of Pyongyang and I feel like it’s even become a sort of rite of passage.

About a month ago, I met with my high school literature teacher, Mrs. Jeanelle Francis. I haven’t seen her and her husband, another teacher at the same school, since I graduated high school six years ago and I wanted to grab lunch to catch up. When she heard that I was working at a non-governmental organization in Seoul on North Korean issues, she got very excited. She began telling me that she had read the book The Aquariums of Pyongyang and then had incorporated it into her AP Literature class lessons. I later asked if she would do an interview for me regarding her experiences teaching the book, which I have included in the article at the bottom. But first, I’d like to discuss my impression of the book. Continue reading

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Introducing Joanna Hosaniak

Today I’d like to introduce to you another foreigner in Seoul working for North Korean human rights. Meet Joanna Hosaniak.

Joanna is a senior programs officer with the Seoul-based NGO, Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR). She was born and raised in Poland and became interested in North Korean issues while working at the South Korean embassy in Poland. She then had a chance to work with NKHR when she helped organize an event in Warsaw. She was then offered a position and moved to Korea in 2004 and has been working on North Korean human rights since then.

Joanna brings an interesting perspective to the field because she grew up experiencing communism and knows what that looks like. “As head of NKHR’s international campaign and cooperation team, she says her experience watching Poland overthrow communism is vital to her work raising awareness and assisting North Korean defectors.” Having grown up in a communist state where her parents had to smuggle prohibited books for her, she feels even more strongly the need to do what she can to help those suffering in North Korea. Continue reading

In the News – China Starts 5-Month Crackdown on N.Korean Defectors

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In the News – China Starts 5-Month Crackdown on N.Korean Defectors 

Chinese security forces launched a massive crackdown on North Korean defectors in Jilin Province’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture on May 15.

Chinese officials say the crackdown is part of a nationwide bust of illegal aliens, but there are suspicions that the drive specifically targets North Korean defectors hiding out in northeastern China as well as South Korean activists and religious organizations who are helping them.

Beijing in March arrested South Korean activist Kim Young-hwan (49) on the vague charge of threatening national security.

Security forces in Yanbian told reporters the crackdown will continue until October and aims to wipe out all the places where North Korans hide, Chinese media reported on Thursday. “Due to its proximity to the border [with North Korea], Yanbian has been the scene of illegal border crossings and other crimes,” said Yanbian immigration chief Li Yong-xue. “If we find illegal immigrants or foreigners without proper documentation, we will investigate immediately.”

He also pledged to “root out activities by foreign NGOs or religious activists that violate laws or have a negative impact on national security and social stability.”

North Korean defectors caught in Yanbian or neighboring areas are expected to be arrested and sent back to the North, while South Koreans who help them worry about criminal investigation and deportation.

Around 10,000-15,000 defectors and other illegal migrants from the North are believed to be living in Yanbian. Some 10,000 South Koreans live there as well. “State security agents already informed Korean residents groups there that they will boost screening of immigration and residency requirements,” said one South Korean businessman in Yanbian. “North Korean defectors here are going into hiding.”

 

Original article can be found here.

In the News – Students Begin 31-Hour Fast for North Korean Defectors

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In the News – Students Begin 31-Hour Fast for North Korean Defectors

Beginning on Tuesday, members of Harvard Human Rights in North Korea (HRiNK) will fast for 31 hours to raise awareness about the 31 North Korean defectors recently repatriated by the Chinese government. The defectors face imprisonment, forced labor, and possible execution in their native country.

For HRiNK co-president Rainer A. Crosett ’14, the fast is an opportunity to correct Harvard students’ misconceptions about North Korea.

“They have the image of the Kim family, you know, and nuclear weapons,” he said. “People don’t actually know that there are, for example, 200,000 people living in concentration camps.”

Crosett added that the organized fast highlights the daily reality of famine and food shortages for many North Koreans.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea because the experience of so many of the North Korean people and refugees is one of intense hunger,” he said.

HRiNK co-president Stephanie Choi ’13 said that the latest defections do not represent isolated incidents. She added that many North Koreans have previously risked imprisonment, torture, and death to reunite with loved ones in South Korea and escape oppression. 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

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

Researching Refugees

North Korean Asylum Seekers (Photo Credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

This summer, when I wasn’t driving around in a minivan or eating dinner or talking about Gossip Girl with North Korean refugees, I dabbled in some online research on foreign policy.

This was on assignment from the Ministry of Unification’s Resettlement Support Division, the department that looks after North Korean refugees during their integration process. I looked into Chinese, South Korean, US, Australian, UK, and Canadian policies with respect to North Korean refugees—those are at least the countries with plentiful information available in English about their policies, and generally are also the ones with the greatest influx of North Korean refugees. Continue reading