Hyon Kim left her native Korea decades ago, but a childhood marred by the country’s division has continued to haunt the Twin Cities entrepreneur.
In recent years, Kim’s dramatic story has fueled an uncommon campaign to help North Korean refugees, particularly those who face exploitation and sexual assault in China. That campaign will culminate at the University of Minnesota Monday, in a symposium that highlights firsthand accounts of refugees, and challenges the United States to do more to address their plight.
“I wanted to do something for my homeland,” said Kim. “It’s a very slow movement, but I am breaking the ice.”
Kim was 4 in 1951 when her father fled Seoul for the North. The U.S. military was advancing on the city, and he feared he would be targeted as a well-known leftist intellectual. He took her mother and brothers with him, but Kim was visiting an aunt in the countryside. She said her father left a note promising to return for her. But the border between North and South Korea was closed, and he never did.
Kim’s aunt raised her and adopted her. In 1970, Kim came to Minnesota with her then-husband, an American she had met while working for the U.S. military in Seoul. She went on to run several businesses, including a St. Paul civil engineering firm, and served on the U’s Board of Regents.
In 1990, she traveled to North Korea and briefly reunited with her family. She was eager to confront her father about abandoning her, only to find out he had been killed in a North Korean purge of intellectuals in the 1950s.
In recent years, Kim has channeled her complicated feelings about her homeland into an effort to better understand the situation of North Korean defectors. The experience brought her healing, she says. She traveled to South Korea three times to meet with North Koreans who fled by way of China. Because China doesn’t recognize these defectors as refugees and deports them, they are at the mercy of the men they pay to help them cross into the country. Hence the well-publicized accounts of rape, sex trafficking and economic exploitation.
“I heard so many terrible stories,” Kim said.
North Koreans able to continue on to Thailand or Laos can apply for resettlement to the United States, but the process takes years. Through the symposium, Kim hopes to advocate for speedier resettlement and more U.S. pressure on China to recognize North Korean refugees. She would like to see North Korean arrivals in Minnesota, where she notes many Hmong refugees have thrived since families first arrived in the 1980s.
Eric Schwartz, dean of the U’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and an authority on refugee issues, says the treatment of North Korean defectors in China has failed to get the international attention that it merits.
“The human rights situation in North Korea is dire,” said Schwartz, who is speaking at the symposium. “It has caused so many people to flee into a very precarious situation across the border with China.”
To learn more about the symposium and Kim’s work, visit freedomrefugeesmn.org.