“Have you ever had snakemeat? Ratmeat? Have you ever stolen anything?” Yosep Baek, a former North Korean soldier, asked a packed Old Union Clubhouse Ballroom on Friday evening. “If you’re part of the North Korean army, you can’t live without those things.”
Along with Eun-A Park, a fellow defector, Baek led a panel discussion on the human rights crisis in North Korea. The evening focused in particular on the resettlement of North Korean youth defectors within South Korea.
David Straub, associate director of Stanford’s Korean Studies Program and the event’s moderator, stressed the importance of moving beyond a focus on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program when discussing the pariah state, advocating by contrast a renewed focus on more human aspects such as the experience of defectors.
According to Lily Kim ‘13, co-chair of the Korean Students Association (KSA), the event has been a regular occurrence since 2009 and — while defectors are not necessarily brought to campus every year — the basic goal essentially remains the same.
“We want to raise awareness, and we want to share the story so that people gain their perspective of looking at and understanding North Korean issues, reality and defectors, and how that’s related to us,” Kim said.
“I don’t specifically see it as a North Korean issue or a South Korean issue,” Kim added. “I see it as our issue. I guess the point was to see how we could bridge the gap.”
Kim noted that bringing in youth defectors offered the opportunity to develop a connection with Stanford students, making similarities and differences more immediate and apparent.
“For people like us, who relatively [have] had very little hardship in our lives, it’s hard to imagine how people like this both want to tell that story and how much it hurts to tell that story,” Straub said.
Park was the first to speak, with KSA member Rachelle Han ‘15 translating.
Park initially fled North Korea for China with her mother in 1998 at the age of 10, prompted by famine in her home country, but they were unable to find the relatives they had planned to meet. They were instead sold to a house in rural China where they were forced to work.
Being sold, Park said, is common because it affords defectors a relatively safe way to live and eat.
“They treated us as an asset instead of people,” Park said.
Park and her mother were repatriated to North Korea three times in total, each time fortunate not to be executed upon their return.
Returning for the first time from the border to her home in North Korea required a five-day journey on a train lacking food and water supplies. Park — who was only 12 years old at the time — recalled being on the brink of fainting from hunger.
“I felt that I could even understand why people ate human beings,” Park said. “If you starve for three days, then you start seeing people as meat.”
Although they were caught again in 2003, they fled for China once more in 2006 before making their way to Mongolia and eventually South Korea.
In contrast to Park, Baek’s origins did not suggest his ultimate defection. His father was a high-ranking general and his family members were “true believers” in the regime and in North Korea’s rulers as “great gods, greater than any religious gods,” he said.
“For me, betraying [the regime] was a greater crime than any other crime there was,” Baek said.
Baek entered the North Korean army at 17 and — despite weighing approximately 93 pounds and standing only five feet tall — suffered extensively from malnutrition, dropping to 68 pounds after a year and a half.
Baek’s journey began when he heard a South Korean radio broadcast, an extreme crime that nevertheless made him realize the problems in North Korea were the result of its military regime.
Like Park, Baek had to attempt to flee multiple times before succeeding. After his second failed attempt, he tried to commit suicide but saved himself.
“I wanted to find that heaven of South Korea. I believed there would be some hope for me,” Baek said. “The heaven I want, it’s not that special. Just to eat very well, just be able to say what’s on my mind; that was my heaven.”
He finally managed to escape and spent six years crossing through China, Vietnam and Germany before settling in South Korea.
Audience questions for the panelists focused on how best to help potential and actual defectors.
“You are already doing the most important thing you can do,” Baek said. “You are listening to my story, and you are echoing the pain that I feel and the pain that I am expressing. I believe that attention, sympathy and love — if you have those ingredients, the North Korean defectors will survive.”