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North Korean Escapees Discuss Human Rights at HKS Event

Seven escapees of North Korea spoke at a virtual Kennedy School event on Tuesday to discuss human rights violations in the country.
Seven escapees of North Korea spoke at a virtual Kennedy School event on Tuesday to discuss human rights violations in the country. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Isabel G. Skomro, Crimson Staff Writer

Seven escapees of North Korea participated in a panel discussion at the Kennedy School Tuesday to discuss human rights violations in North Korea and their efforts to bring more freedoms to the people there.

Jieun Baek, a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, moderated the event, which was hosted by the Belfer Center and the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

Baek, whose grandfathers were refugees from North Korea, said in an interview before the event that one of its purposes was to redefine who is considered an expert on North Korea.

“It’s not to say that policymakers and academics are not experts — of course they are. But I think that the true experts on the subject are the North Korean people themselves, who have the lived experience and have defected,” she said. “And unfortunately, it’s way too uncommon that North Korean defectors are not invited to speak on these issues.”

The event began with Baek laying out the extensive human rights violations commited by the North Korean regime, including running prison camps where atrocities such as extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, and rape occur.

She also spoke about North Korea's laws, which forbid citizens from consuming any information or media that is not permitted by the state and make leaving the country without permission punishable by death.

She said the event would take a different approach to human rights violations in North Korea than is generally taken.

“The problem definition today or to date has generally been a variation of how to get the regime to better protect the rights of its people,” she said. “Today, we will redefine that problem by asking how could we, civil society and the global community, improve the rights of North Korean people in both the short term and the long term.”

Seo-Hyun Lee, a graduate student who escaped from North Korea in 2014, outlined two main tools the regime uses to facilitate human rights violations: suppression of speech and travel and guilt by association.

“In North Korea, every single person is subject to guilt by association,” she said. “This means your parents, spouse, siblings, children, even grandchildren, basically all your loved ones can be punished because of your actions.”

Human rights activist Yeon-Mi Park spoke about the process of escaping from North Korea as a child. First, she said, there are physical barriers, like fences, guards, and even landmines.

Once past the physical barriers and in China, escapees face a host of other threats, including repatriation by China back to North Korea.

“The Chinese Communist Party right now does not accept North Koreans as refugees. They view us as economic migrants,” Park said. “China does not have a right to send us back to our homeland, because we are going to be persecuted when we [are sent] back.”

She said that North Korean women also face the threat of being human trafficked and sold as sex slaves once in China, as she herself experienced.

“This is completely forgotten from the mainstream because so many countries have an interest in [the] Chinese government, and nobody wants to challenge the status quo,” she said. “So I think we are just completely forgotten — even though my mother and I were both sold for $300 in 2007.”

—Staff writer Isabel G. Skomro can be reached at isabelskomro@thecrimson.com or on Twitter @isabelskomro.

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PoliticsHarvard Kennedy School