Human rights ‘desert’: An interview with North Korean defector Kim Hyeong Soo
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Human rights ‘desert’: An interview with North Korean defector Kim Hyeong Soo

KIM Hyeong Soo escaped North Korea in February 2009.

His mother was arrested in China, repatriated, and tortured before dying in a prison camp.

Hyeong Soo currently resides in South Korea and is a member of the National Unification Advisory Council. He also co-founded Stepping Stones, a non-profit group fighting to ameliorate prison conditions in North Korea, improve the rights of its female citizens and children, and prevent the forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees.

Prior to his escape, he worked as a biologist in a government institute dedicated to researching exotic foods and medicines to prolong the longevity of North Korea’s supreme leaders. That same institute reportedly served lion’s penis to former leader Kim Jong Il, who believed it would improve his sexual performance.

Hyeong Soo was among the panel of experts invited to speak at “The North Korean Puzzle: Putting the Pieces Together” annual human rights conference organised by the Princeton for North Korean Human Rights (PNKHR) student group and held last weekend at the school.

SEE ALSO: Experts examine North Korean puzzle at Princeton human rights conference

Asian Correspondent caught up with him to discuss his defection, life in the South and his dream for reunification, and his co-founding of Stepping Stones. The following is a condensed version of the interview:

AC: Few North Koreans in your position of privilege decide to defect. What motivated you to do so?

Hyeong Soo (speaking through a translator):  I can talk about two things, which are interconnected. The first is when I heard that Kim Jong Un was nominated as heir at the time. He was way younger than I was, and I realised I would never get out of this dictatorship until I die. The second thing is I was able to have access to a radio and have access to the outside world. The most popular channels are all from America, especially Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. Had I not had the radio, I would not have known anything about the outside world, so those are the two biggest things that motivated me.

AC: Do you see radio programmes as the best way to galvanise North Korean citizens in starting regime change?

HS: Radios are important, but so are other methods. With the recent technological advances in North Korea, people now have limited access to phones and laptops, so there could be USB sticks containing important information going into the country. Paper flyers are also important. People have also mentioned sending information through a satellite. There are a lot of methods, both hardware and software. We need to research which is the most effective.

AC: In your talk, you spoke about the importance of adapting South Korean ideology as a North Korean defector. Can you give an example of that?

HS: When you settle into South Korea, the biggest thing North Koreans think about is getting a job, but I think the most important thing when you enter is to forget everything you’ve learnt in North Korea because everything they teach you is a complete lie. The South Korean government doesn’t reeducate you that much in that regard, so you have to personally and actively learn it through the Internet or through other sources. If you don’t overcome that, if you still maintain and stick to what you learned in North Korea, your ideology doesn’t change and you can’t change your identity as a North Korean person living in South Korea.


Fences marking the border between North Korea and South Korea in the Korean demilitarized zone. Source: Rex Wholster/Shutterstock

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AC: Why did you start Stepping Stone? What is its mission?

HS: Our NGO consists of people who were oppressed in prisons or lost their family, [people] who have stories to tell. We thought it was important to tell this story as a group, in a very organised and systematic way. There are more effective ways of saying the same things we say when we testify, so we ask the younger members of our organisation to learn English. There are NGOs in Seoul that teach North Korean refugees English, so we contacted those groups.

I think a very special and different focus of our group is that we not only look at North Korean people’s human rights in North Korea but also in China. China does not recognise North Korean refugees as refugees, and because of that, a lot of North Korean women are often sold as slaves to forcefully marry Chinese men living in South Korea. They’re often victims of domestic violence but won’t tell anyone because they are threatened with being reported to the Chinese police, who often forcibly abort their children. If they get sent back to North Korea, they’re often executed, so we’re trying to engage with the Chinese government and tell them to respect and recognise these people as refugees.

As a third motivation, we also focus on children, mainly the children of North Korean women and Chinese men. If the North Korean woman gets repatriated back to North Korea, then the kids remain because they’re still the kids of the Chinese man, but they don’t have any identity. They’re not part of the Hukou system, so they’re often neglected. We’re trying to find ways to teach them Korean and then send them back to South Korea, and we’ve done that already with a few kids who are now in the hands of South Koreans. There are tens of thousands of kids like that in China. The Chinese police turn a blind eye to these kids.


Hyeong Soo (second left), ex-CIA deputy division chief Bruce Klingner (third left) and Sarah Son from the Transitional Justice Working Group speaking during the Princeton for North Korean Human Rights conference held on Feb 17, 2018. Source: Sophia Cai

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AC: It sounds like human rights are very much interconnected internationally. That doesn’t immediately occur to a lot of people. What does the US need to do, and what do we as citizens need to do to change that dialogue?

HS: I think the US national interest in North Korean human rights is relatively small and weak compared to that of the nuclear weapons program or the international politics regarding the country. The US government has done a lot regarding human rights, but in terms of the general public and the NGO, there is more work to be done. I think the NGO has a lot of power. The NGOs that are currently involved in North Korean human rights either in Korea or other countries are having hard times economically and also with manpower, so more volunteers and donations would be very helpful.

AC: Finally, looking ahead, what is your hope for yourself? What is your hope for Stepping Stone? And what is your hope for your country?

HS: My personal dream is that North Korea gets reunified with South Korea soon so that its people can enjoy the benefits of being a human being. The wish I have for my organisation is that even if reunification doesn’t happen that quickly, we will be able to exert a fair amount of pressure on North Korea on human rights issues and make more and more people aware of North Korean human rights. We could, for example, hold protests in front of North Korean embassies or consulates, we can send letters to the North Korean regime, and we can let people know that North Korea is a “desert” for human rights.

AC: And what is your long-term hope for your country?

HS: If I talk about hope for North Korea, I can split it between hope for the regime and hope for the people. As for the regime, I actually have no hopes for it because I don’t think the Kim regime will change what it does. If we leave Kim Jong Un alone, he will maintain his power and inherit that to his own child. I don’t expect that much from the North Korean state. As for the people, I just wish that they get enlightened soon enough so that they can democratise their own country and put the current regime into collapse.