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Insight into North Korea - Defectors talk about womens and childrens rights in Berlin

Christian Koch  |  2017-11-15 09:17
On Sunday November 5th, the Berlin-based NGO "Saram" in cooperation with the College Students Alliance for North Korean Human Rights hosted an event focusing on womens and childrens rights in North Korea. 

Nam Gyu Baek talked about his first-hand experiences with human rights, focusing particularly on childrens rights in North Korea.

Baek himself said that he grew up in a violent home. My father was like the dictator of the house, he said. He would beat up my mom for no reason, as well as me for every little mistake I made, adding that while others saw him as a good person, his parents relationship actually hit rock-bottom. 

After his parents got divorced, Baeks mother disappeared and his father did not have any money. Shortly after his second marriage, he sent him to live with his aunt, who could barely take care of him, already having two children to provide for. 

At school, no one seemed to care if he attended or not, except when there was labor to do. Often we had to dig holes and carry heavy bags of sand, he stated, stressing that it was a dangerous job and several students died in accidents. 

Due to the difficult relationship with his aunt, Baek was forced at the age of 13 to become a beggar on the streets and steal food, where he eventually met more kids in the same situation. It was a surprise to find other kids in the same situation as me, he added. In many other countries there are systems to take care of such individuals, but that does not exist in North Korea. [] many of those kids, who lived like that, died after a while. Most of those kids also came from homes where they were exposed to violence. We did not directly talk about it, but I could see it in their faces.

Baek never understood why it happened in his family. When my dad was sober he would beat me up for even a little mistake, and beat me up for no reason at all when he was drunk. He assumes that his father and his grandfather had a similar relationship. It was probably just a way to release stress in some way, Baek stated. 

Living on the street, he had no choice but to join other kids and steal food or other property to sell later. It was easier that way [] it was more just a relationship for survival, nothing human, we would do whatever possible in order to survive, like a natural instinct - just like animals.

Baek himself said that he was lucky to be quite strong at that time and also, to live in Musan. He was able to get more and more information from other kids about how life is better on the other side of the border. At the age of 14, he eventually crossed the border to China, where he found help and support in a Korean church, was moved to Mongolia for several months, and eventually arrived in South Korea, where he decided to change his life. 

During the Q&A session, Baek was asked why, in his opinion, the country does not help in such cases and what could be done to improve the lives of the people, especially kids there. He answered that he is not even sure if they even care about such cases.

There is nothing you can do from the inside, only from the outside. This is why it is so important to raise awareness globally on such topics, he noted. As for childcare, a political reunification of both Koreas could be the only solution [] care and raising awareness are really important in that case.

The event continued with the experiences of Ji Young Lee, a former employee at the National Security Department of North Korea, who discussed the human rights abuses of women in the army and in general. 

Lee was born in Kangwon Province, worked in the army, and escaped the North six years ago. From an early age she was brainwashed to hate the U.S. and was convinced that the U.S. was responsible for all the things that happened to both Koreas.

During the North Korean famine, Lee and her family suffered extensively, despite her father being in the military. My mother was very sick and couldnt move and my father couldnt return home, because of the many dying soldiers, she explained. I had to take care of my two siblings [] every time I returned home I was so scared before opening the door, because I was expecting that somebody in my family might have died.

As Lee was above average height, she was forced to join the army in high school and became a signalman after three months of training. It was a hard life, Lee stated, going into details about how she was forced to work above and beyond her schedule, cooking and cleaning for people of higher ranks. Even cleaning private homes and making food for soldiers became part of her schedule, because she was a woman. For over six months I could only sleep for two to three hours per day, she continued. Reports of sexual assault were frequent.

When there were construction jobs, even female soldiers were forced to help. There was no distinction made between men and women. They were tough years and at the same time the only way to survive, while also serving the party and country, she explained. 

During her fifth year in the army, Lee was expelled from the military, even though she would have served the additional two years. Coming home early from the military might be good news in South Korea, but it is very bad news in the North [] most women who are expelled from the North Korean military are pregnant as a result of rape, she continued.

I asked about the reason why I was expelled and they told me that my mother and sister had left the country and betrayed us. I asked them to keep me on, but they only said that it wouldnt be of any use, as I was a disgrace.

Lee explained how she first developed disdain for her country after her future was left in tatters and she became worried from that point on how to survive each day. Once a week she was picked up by the State Security Department and questioned about the whereabouts of her mother. When I told them that I didnt know, they would only beat me up [] and I realized why my mother left.

One day Lee was met by a broker sent by her mother, who by that time had already arrived in the South with her sister. At the North Korean - Chinese border, she was able to talk with her mother on the phone for the first time after being separated for an extensive period. After being told that her sister had started college, she decided to leave everything behind. It was always my dream to go to college and I couldnt fall asleep that night. I decided to leave, because I knew I would die in the North, either through starvation or due to the political consequences of my mother and sister escaping the country. I wanted to survive.

Lees escape took two years and required four attempts before she arrived in South Korea, as it was exceedingly difficult to cross China, as well as Laos and Thailand.

During the Q&A session, Lee was asked about the North Korean famine, where the military (esp. higher ranks) received significant food donations from other countries around the world, while the "normal" population barely received anything at all. Lee stated that while she was in a higher ranked department at that time, she suddenly received a different type of rice that she was sure came from another country.

When Lee was relocated to a middle-ranked department, she was suddenly not receiving any rice at all. I remember that there were bags of rice marked with "U.S.A"  on the market, which were sold by higher ranks from the army. We were also told that the United States sent them, because they were scared of North Koreas nuclear power. 

Lee was also asked if she had ever felt that the additional workload was unfair or in contrast a privilege because she could serve her country in the army, as well as the difference between women and men in the North Korean society. She replied that she felt it was unfair but at the time chose to question and become angry at herself, while also telling herself that it is normal, because she is a woman.

Everybody was doing it and what matters is that I am alive. In North Korea women are not simply seen as human, and men would say things like you are not even a person, she explained, adding that she was referred to as a half-person. Lee also stated that there is no official discrimination when it comes to college. But when she expressed her wish to go to college, some advised her to get married, as it is easier. 

Lee arrived in South Korea in 2011. It was like jumping in a time machine, she said. 

The event continued the next day at Humboldt University in Berlin.
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