I got the rare privilege to listen to a refugee from North Korea speak to a packed room of foreigners today. I’ve read many books about our neighbor to the North – history and personal experiences of escapees and survivors. I’ve watched documentaries and I’ve been to the DMZ. But I’ve never had a chance to listen to one speak about their experience and what they think of the world outside the Hermit Kingdom.

NOT a picture of our speaker. Just a picture of the room before she arrived.

We were not allowed to take pictures of the woman, and we didn’t even get to know her name – she went simply as “Miss Kim” (Kim is a very common family name in Korea). Before she took the stage, a British man who works with the UN (or something) with North Koreans came up to give a little bit of a background about North Korea, the lifestyles of normal North Koreans, the caste-like system, and how North Korea is, in essence, the world’s largest prison. He showed a short video of film shot by North Koreans of public executions and emaciated children and adults dying of starvation. Afterwards, he asked the speaker to come up. She was crying, so we had to wait a moment.

When she took the stage, I started crying with her. She was much younger than I was expecting, and very small – at least a foot shorter than her translator, who was probably around Miss Kim’s age. Which I’d guess was mid-20s. She told about growing up during the famine in the 90s (which killed 800,000 to 3,500,000 people); she talked about how one mistake made by someone in your family can ruin the lives of everyone for three generations – which is what happened when her grandmother’s aunt and uncle escaped from the country. Everyone was forced out of the Capitol city and into a labor town. Her parents, who were college educated, were forced to take on jobs in factories. Even though Miss Kim did well in school and was accepted into college, her parents told her that she couldn’t go because it wouldn’t matter what she studied, the State had predetermined her job because of the “sins” that her great aunt had committed. They told her she would be married – to someone the State deemed appropriate for someone like her (and her low status).

When her father died, he was filled with regret and strife over how the State had treated him and his family. No matter how hard he had worked, he had never gained anything and had never been rewarded. While he toiled for the State, those in the highest class continued to prosper, but his children would never be able to get anything no matter how hard any of them worked. When he died, she realized (although she had already been thinking about it for a long time) that it was time to escape. She promised her dead father she wouldn’t relive his life, and that she would return to his grave when the Korea’s are reunited.

She was able to tell us her story through the help of a translator, and she did so with bravery. She has only been in South Korea for 2 months, and she was in China for quite a while before that. She didn’t share too much about that situation, as it could endanger people. I had an opportunity to ask her what is the most important thing she would like us to share with people about her and her countrymen. She said that it was not an exaggeration when she said that nobody could take a picture of her. If her picture was taken, her family would die. Period. If they weren’t already in a labor camp for the rest of their lives. If one person makes a mistake, everyone suffers. People die every day – no wait. People are MURDERED every day by the State, when they – or simply someone they are related to – do something the State doesn’t approve of.

She also mentioned the women who make it out of North Korea, but are then sold into slavery as “wives” to Chinese men. When they have babies, but then are given some opportunities to escape to South Korea, they often have to leave their babies behind with their Chinese “husbands.” She said this is torturous, and something she thinks every country should encourage China to help these women, not abandon them. She said that the North Koreans that escaped from the country the day before her were captured by Chinese security – and sent back to North Korea. Which means that they are dead.

The food and medicine that the World Food Program and other organizations send to North Korea are useless. They go into the hands of the rich, who sell whatever they don’t use at a marked up price to regular citizens. They get rich off of the food, and fat too, while everyone else starves. She said that the only reason she ever knew that life was better outside of North Korea is because of smuggled contraband like South Korean dramas, music, and other forms of entertainment. She said those are the things that give people hope for a better world, and a reason to sacrifice everything in their lives to pursue freedom.

I could spend a long time trying to remember and share what I heard yesterday. But I think it’s better if you go read a book about this situation. Read “The Aquariums of Pyongyang,” or “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in NorthKorea.” Or watch a documentary about the situation (this one is quite entertaining and equally heartbreaking). We in the West always talk about “never letting XYZ Genocide or Human Atrocity” happen again, but it’s happening now in North Korea – a country that is still at war with the country I live in. People who live less than 300 miles from me don’t even know what it’s like to not be hungry; they don’t know what the interior of a car looks like; they get to choose NOTHING about their lives.

And, as Miss Kim told us, it has never crossed their minds to consider what it is to love or be loved.

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