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Meeting North Koreans outside the country in freedom

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By Casey Lartigue Jr.

With North Korea's border closed due to COVID-19 concerns, could the world be missing an opportunity to engage and even rescue North Koreans who have been dispatched by North Korea to work or study abroad but can't return now?

"Modern slavery" is how the International Society for Human Rights describes what happens to North Koreans dispatched by the regime to work abroad. In late 2017, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution calling for the repatriation by the end of 2019 of all North Korean nationals earning income abroad.

I concede all arguments about North Korean overseas workers being exploited by the gangsters running the North (e.g., physical abuse in slave-like conditions with insufficient safety measures and confiscation of their income).

As someone working directly with North Korean refugees, however, I have observed six good reasons for welcoming North Koreans (not just workers) abroad despite that exploitation.

One, North Koreans can safely engage with people outside of the North. Lee Seo-hyun said in a speech at a Freedom Speakers International (FSI) conference that she had been brainwashed until she was intellectually challenged by a taxi driver when she was studying in China. Tourists to North Korea are unlikely to challenge North Koreans, with both sides knowing they are probably getting monitored by North Korean agents.

Two, North Koreans outside of the North have more opportunities to learn about the outside world. A few years ago, a refugee contacted me shortly after he arrived in South Korea. As a staff member at a North Korean embassy in an Asian country, he tracked people deemed to be a threat to Pyongyang. He said he kept coming across my name and a word he was unfamiliar with: "Volunteering." After he escaped, I was one of the first people he met once he was in freedom, and he was able to study with some of those volunteers.

Three, it is better for North Koreans to start their escapes from places like Malta or Poland rather than on North Korea's border evading guards with shoot-to-kill orders. It was international news when a young North Korean math whiz escaped during a trip to Hong Kong as he was participating in an international math competition. After escaping, he studied English in my organization and was a typical university student in South Korea.

Four, North Koreans living abroad begin enjoying freedom outside of the North and dread returning to the country. Thae Yong-ho was the former deputy ambassador to the North Korean embassy in the U.K. until he escaped in 2016. As a career diplomat, he could defend the regime. As a dad, he couldn't keep lying to his children. "Dad, the internet helps me with my homework, why won't our great leader let us use it?"

Thae decided he didn't want his children growing up in slavery in North Korea. This weekend, I will be moderating a forum at which he will be one of three former North Korean diplomats answering the question: "What the world should know about North Korea?"

Five, North Koreans outside of the North can interact with other North Koreans in freedom. Some refugees say North Koreans abroad are often fans and some have directly contacted them. How many people in North Korea can watch YouTube without the threat of death or even dare to contact those YouTubers or TV personalities? Some of the North Korean refugees who are public figures have counseled North Koreans abroad contemplating the next big step to complete freedom.

Six, North Koreans can tell their stories in freedom, even when their memoirs fail to measure up to the Ivy Tower standards of Western academics. A handful of North Korean refugees have published books and become public speakers.

Songmi Han, co-author with me of the forthcoming book, "Greenlight to Freedom," puts it well: "I didn't have a voice in North Korea. My friends and family will be so shocked that I am publishing a book and that others want to hear about my life even though I was starving in North Korea and I wasn't part of the elite."

Researchers, reporters and North Korea watchers look to be dazzled about the latest trends in North Korea, but the everyday stories about escaping North Korea and living in freedom can inform and inspire North Koreans in the North or living abroad.

I understand the intentions behind blocking the North Korean gangsters from exploiting the handful of North Koreans the country dispatches abroad. However, it would be preferable for North Koreans to live in freedom so they can engage in more honest discussions, learn about the outside world, get used to even limited freedom, have safer opportunities to escape, can interact with other North Koreans in freedom, and can even tell their stories to the world after they escape.


Casey Lartigue Jr. is co-author along with Songmi Han of the forthcoming book, "Greenlight to Freedom," and co-founder, along with Eunkoo Lee, of Freedom Speakers International (FSI).




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