Back in July, I organized the North Korean panel at Google’s conference on Illicit Networks in Westlake, California. Ranging from the regime’s elite party members to the country’s forgotten orphans, ten North Korean defectors flew in from Seoul to join us at the INFO conference. Each shared parts of his/her extraordinary story of survival and excruciatingly painful quest for freedom. Their experiences, individually and collectively, is a testament to the invincibility of human resilience and spirit. I had the opportunity to work with this team of ten for the seven months leading up to the conference–from arranging flight tickets (which was a nightmare) to crafting the North Korean panel and lab. I wish I could share every detail of this unforgettable team of ten. Since no one has the time for that, I will share some paraphrased stories and personal take-aways from the four days I spent with this team in Westlake Village, California.
Paralyzing fear of North Korean spies
Only after the conference ended did I learn that some men doubled up in their hotel rooms out of extreme fear that there were North Korean spies at the conference to kidnap or kill them. One night, a pair of men took turns staying up and keeping guard of the windows and room door, just in case. Hyeon kept asking me for floor plans of the Four Seasons hotel because he wanted to memorize the exits for each floor in case he had to escape from spies. These men were not watching for anyone in particular; they were scared to death of any spy sent from the regime.
Border guard who defected
Hyeon was a border guard (about 5 feet 4 inches tall) who was trained to shoot to kill North Koreans attempting to escape into China. (Defection is a highly treasonous crime that warrants sentences to prison camps or execution. Relatives are also punished per the state’s guilt-by-association policy.) He used to let some defectors pass when no guard was watching, an act that put his family at risk. A close friend once begged for Hyeon to let a poor orphan pass into China. Even after heated arguments with his wife, who insisted that her husband not engage in a bribeless illicit act, Hyeon let the defector pass. Months after, Hyeon defected himself. He crossed the Tumen River, and for ten full minutes, he sobbed for the first time, feeling unbearably guilty for betraying his country. A year later, he sent for his wife and four year-old son, both of whom live with him in Seoul now.
The orphan that Hyeon let pass into China is “Paul,” who also joined us at INFO. Check out one of my previous posts where I wrote extensively about my chat with “Paul.”
Free as nature
On the second night of the conference, the 250 participants sat at assigned tables for dinner. Against a beautiful backdrop of mountains, trees, and a constructed waterfall, I sat next to Mrs. Choe, a former elite party member who bragged about being overweight while living in Pyongyang to show off that she used to be part of the wealthy elite class (she now runs a small restaurant in Seoul). She constantly scanned the sea of well-dressed and happy people around her, and for the first time, she let her cold guard down. She tearfully told me, “People here remind me of nature. Just like the trees, wind, and water, people here behave so freely. They laugh whenever they want, can eat and wear whatever they want, and say whatever they want. I even heard someone joking about Obama’s ears! I would love for my former 250 employees at my clothing factory in North Korea to experience such freedom. Some of my employees had to choose which child to feed at night because of the constant scarcity of food.”
Pool and Politics
After dinner each night, some people would head into the hotel bar and hang out. Around midnight, I saw two separate games of pool going on; one among North Koreans, and another with a more diverse group of players. I suggested that they merge teams, and for the next hour or so, I saw North Korean defectors, a former Ugandan child soldier and an American diplomat play a game of pool, laughing, drinking, and betting with one another, all the while having no idea what the other person was saying, yet having one hell of a time. While watching that boisterous game, I thought of just how arbitrary political boundaries and consequent ethnicities are. The handsome brunette U.S. diplomat happened to be born in a free country, where kids don’t see corpses of political prisoners carted around villages to scare people from defecting, which is what his pool teammates from North Korea were all too familiar with. The five foot-three 29 year-old North Korean who shared pool tips with his new Ugandan friend shared photos of their wife and girlfriend, and without sharing a single word in common, they were able to connect over unconditionally loving another human being.
Why do Americans care?
Throughout the conference, some of the North Koreans repeatedly asked people, especially American men (who they are trained to hate), “why do you care about North Korea and our people?” Everyone’s answer was the same: “because we’re all equally human, and since North Koreans happen to be born under difficult circumstances, we want to do what we can to share what we have and simply help.” People were utterly stunned by this answer. The very people who they thought killed and ate Korean babies, indiscriminately raped women, and were waging war on North Korea were saying that they thought North Koreans were equal to Americans, and they were interested in listening to their stories and doing what they could to help. This was absolutely shocking to this team.
Per the panelists’ request, we agreed to have the North Korea panel off the record. The lab, however, was based on Mr. Heung-Kwang Kim’s organization North Korea Intellectual Solidarity, which he is quite public about. If you’d like more information about these particular ten participants, please do not hesitate to reach out to me.