Na-ra Kang was on a bus in China two years ago, on the trip of her life, when a policeman got on. If he asked her for papers, he would find out she was North Korean and send her back, likely to her death.
“I prayed with all my heart that he wouldn’t notice me,” Kang told a rapt audience at the U on Thursday. “Fortunately, he got off.”
It was the closest call in an escape that took Kang to Thailand and eventually to South Korea, where she joined a refugee community that, since 2000, has grown from a relative handful of people to approximately 30,000.
As Americans near the end of a presidential campaign that has been influenced by the crisis of refugees fleeing the Middle East and Africa for Europe, a group of Minnesota activists put the spotlight on another ongoing, harrowing migration from misery: the one flowing out of North Korea.
Hyon Kim, a Roseville construction executive and president of Freedom for North Korean Refugees of Minnesota, tries to bring attention to the North Koreans’ plight because she has two brothers still in the country whom she hasn’t seen in 66 years, she told the seminar, which attracted about 70 people at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
In the 12 years since Congress passed a law permitting North Korean refugees to settle in the U.S., only 203 have come. Speakers at the seminar had mixed feelings about whether the U.S. should do more to encourage defectors to move here.
“A country like the United States is so far away,” said Sung-min Kim, president of Seoul-based Free North Korea Radio, who advocates for more movement to the U.S. “It would be so helpful if they heard North Korean success stories from the U.S. and how much interest Americans and the U.S. government paid toward them.”
Jiyeon Ihn, an attorney and leader of human rights organization in Seoul, said South Korea is the more natural place for North Koreans to settle. But she noted that they often encounter discrimination in the South, where society adheres to hierarchical structures. “We sometimes treat them as inferior,” she said. “I worry that I unconsciously am not respecting North Koreans. But they are heroes. They survived the most oppressive regime in the world.”
Su-jin Kim was in her late 40s when she decided to leave North Korea in 2013, angry at the construction and road work that the government forced her to do and fearful of the capricious judgments that could send people to concentration camps. She told how a father of a friend was sent to a prison camp because he didn’t have the know-how or equipment to build a compressor engine sought by a government agency. “North Korean people are like flies being randomly hit with a fly swatter,” she said.
Kang, who is in her early 20s, grew up in an elite family in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, but decided to leave because of the way she was treated at university. She paid a broker to guide her journey through the Chinese interior, avoiding police along the way. It ended with two days on a crowded boat to Thailand, five days in a Thai prison and months in South Korean custody before she was allowed to live on her own. Now she attends university in Seoul and is part of the cast on a musical TV program.
“I miss my family and friends in North Korea,” she said. “I wish for the reunification of Korea. Then my friends and family could see me on television.”