Sokeel Park sees the effects of North Korea's repressive government every day. He lives in South Korea, but works for an NGO named Liberty in North Korea. His job is to debrief those who've managed to leave the North and help them start new lives in the South.
Park says that with so much focus on the country's nuclear weapons and leadership, it's easy to forget about the 24 million people going about their everyday lives. Those lives are heavily controlled by the North Korean government, citizens are told where to work, where to live, and are not allowed to leave.
But every year, a few thousand people do leave, and many are assisted by Park.
Park talks with Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin about the lives of refugees and what it's like living inside North Korea.
On escaping from North Korea
"Basically people are dealing with either a frozen river, or trying to wade or swim across a river into China. And obviously, they have to deal with the border security on both sides — there's maybe a couple of ways that people can deal with that. The main way is, actually, through corruption. And there are some people who just take the risk and try to make a run for it — but it's a really desperate measure to take that."
On the North Korean government
"The regime — because it completely prioritizes political stability and maintaining its power and control over the society — they get into people's lives to a level that is probably unprecedented around the world. And so they try to control what kind of jobs you can have, what kind of education you can have. And the result of that is that the North Korean economy is even poorer than it was in the 1970s and the Cold War. I would actually describe it as an enforced poverty."
On immigrating to South Korea
"A lot of the North Korean refugee's first experience in South Korea is Incheon International Airport — they describe surprise at even the automatic flushing toilets, even just the marble floor that they have in that airport — all of these things are surprising. It's almost like waking up out of a time capsule after 50 years. It's actually South Korea that's changed, so when North Korean refugees actually come here, more than a culture shock, it's actually kind of a generational or time shock."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. It is a familiar cycle: the rhetoric out of North Korea heats up, a diplomatic standoff ensues and all eyes focus on that small, secretive country and its nuclear program. The latest twist: this weekend, North Korea announced that Kenneth Bay, an American whose been detained in North Korea for almost six months will be put on trial for alleged times against the state. The charges carry a maximum punishment of death. The case complicates the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea, a country that is almost completely obscured by its notoriously harsh and unpredictable government.
SOKEEL PARK: This is such a blind spot for the outside world, right. We focus so much the regime leadership, Kim Jong Un or Kim Jong Il and the nuclear weapons and missiles. And we do forget that there's 24 million people that's living ordinary lives.
MARTIN: That's Sokeel Park. He works for an NGO in South Korea called Liberty in North Korea, helping North Koreans who've escaped those ordinary lives. There, what's ordinary is a life that may be desperately poor, dangerous and rigidly controlled by the state. Sokeel Park's job is to debrief those who've managed to leave the state and help them start new lives in South Korea. Park hears their stories firsthand, and he is this week's Sunday Conversation. Between two and three thousand North Koreans escape to South Korea each year. I asked Mr. Park to describe how they get out.
PARK: Basically people are either dealing with either a frozen river or trying to wade or swim across a river into China. And obviously, they have to deal with the border security on both sides. There's maybe a couple of ways that people can deal with that. The main way is, actually, through corruption.
MARTIN: You mean bribery.
PARK: Yeah, sure. And then there are some people that just actually take the risk and just try to make a run for it. But it's a really desperate measure to take that.
MARTIN: Are there any common traits that these people have besides, obviously, an overwhelming desire to leave? Are they mostly men, women, families?
PARK: So, it's actually the majority of female refugees that are coming through.
MARTIN: Why are they women?
PARK: There's some evidence that suggest that women inside North Korea have more anti-regime sentiment than the men. Because the men are still subject to a bit more control by the state. Another thing is that there is kind of a market - if we can put it like that - for North Korean women in China. China has their so-called one-child policy, and especially in the rural regions in Northeast China, this results in a lack of marriageable women. And many women are going there and they're entering into various kinds of underground sex industries. There's a whole range of ways that people get taken and sometimes they are tricked. And sometimes actually they have some knowledge that this is the kind of thing that they're getting into. But they go along with it because, frankly, for some people even that situation of being exploited in China is better than the option of just remaining in North Korea.
MARTIN: I wonder if you wouldn't mind sharing one or two stories of refugees and what life was like for them. What were the factors that finally led them to flee?
PARK: Sure. Well, obviously, there's going to be some elements to the stories that I'm going to have to omit. But, for instance, you know, I could talk about a young guy - let's call him young Mr. Lee. He's in his early to mid-20s, and he's never really gotten anything from the government or from the state. His parents' generation growing up in the '70s or '80s, they were genuinely un-faltered for the state because the state genuinely provided for them. Then when Lee was growing up, the national ration system collapsed. And so it was very clear that the regime is not providing for him. And if anything, the regime is actually an obstruction to his development and to his family's and his community's development. At the same time, he's described to me accessing foreign media in a way that was never possible for the previous generations.
MARTIN: Are we talking about Internet cafes or private computers? I mean, how would he even get online?
PARK: Right. So, unfortunately, the Internet is not available inside the country. The Internet is only open to a very handpicked select few of regime officials. And then they have a very closed intranet that doesn't even really have any of the functions that we were to, you know, associate with the Internet. So, what they have to do is rely on offline technologies. There's a lot more DVDs and USBs that are being smuggled in from China, for instance. And Lee had a DVD player in his own house.
MARTIN: But I guess I'm wondering how does it get from watching American movies on a DVD player to deciding to leave your family, leave everything you know and flee?
PARK: I guess what I can say is that our friend, Mr. Lee, he wanted to live in a society where the government wasn't trying to control all of his opportunities. And he knew that even if there were challenges in assimilating into South Korean society, in the long term he was going to be able to go to university here and have a much better life.
MARTIN: I imagine it's overwhelming.
PARK: You know, some of these things can be overwhelming. You know, there's even a lot of the North Korean refugees' first experience of South Korea is Incheon International Airport. They describe surprise at even the automatic flushing toilets, even just the marble floor that they have in that airport. You know, all of these things are surprising. It's almost like waking up out of a time capsule after 50 years. It's actually South Korea that's changed. So, when North Korean refuges actually come here, more than a culture shock, it's actually kind of a generational or time shock.
MARTIN: How did you get into this work?
PARK: My father is from Seoul originally, but his parents - so, my paternal grandparents - are from North Hamgyong Province, which is actually where a lot of the North Korean refugees come from. And so from an early age, I was very interested in the country. You know, I was aware that I had extended family in North Korea that didn't come to the south before or during the Korean War.
MARTIN: Do you still have extended family in North Korea?
PARK: Yes, I do.
MARTIN: Have you talked to your dad about this? Is this something that he thinks about?
PARK: You know, we've not talked about it that much. I think that actually that's typical for a lot of Korean families; that after the Korean War, there were millions that were separated. But it's been so long and that separation has seemed to become so permanent at this point that I think a lot of people have almost given up hope, although, obviously, if North Korea changes and opens up one way or another in the future, then it would be great to get back in contact with, you know, even distant cousins.
MARTIN: Sokeel Park is director of research and strategy at the NGO Liberty in North Korea. He joined us from Seoul. Sokeel, thanks so much for talking with us.
PARK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.