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[Shim Jae-hong] Beginning of an activist

Few who read this will have had the experience of living in fear. But the same cannot be said of North Korean defectors in China.

“There are many North Korean defectors in China who are living under the fear of arrest. Many women end up being the victims of human trafficking, and their children become vulnerable and deprived of maternal care and basic education. Our job is to help and support these people,” said Tim Peters, a prominent social activist living in Seoul.

Mr. Peters was speaking to my class at the invitation of my professor, Gavin Farrell who was preparing us all to write newspaper opinion pieces about North Korean matters. After finishing his talk on North Korean defectors in China, Mr. Peters took questions from the students. The talk was inspiring and I was curious about how to help. I asked him if he thought collecting clothes and sending them to defectors in China would help, thinking that would also raise awareness among those who are apathetic about the issue. Doesn’t giving someone your own clothes signify something special?

But it soon turned out that I, in fact, was naive. He smiled and replied kindly, even though many people had already asked him this same silly question. “That can be a possibility and your motivation is surely in the right place, but keep in mind China’s already got the largest number of factories and provides clothing at quite a cheap price. You might want to consider that there are plenty of other ways to help them out that would be more effective.”

As Professor Gavin wrapped up the class, Mr. Peters gave out his name cards, inviting us to his weekly Catacombs meetings. Everyone was welcome to come and discuss in an informal setting how we could help North Korean defectors. Out of curiosity about the American man who seemed dedicated to helping them out, I decided to go.

What was striking there was that more than half of the people were from North America, and each one of them was eager to participate. Watching how enthusiastic these Americans and Canadians were, I felt a pang of embarrassment at my indifference toward North Koreans. These Canadians and Americans were conscientious people who did not mind putting themselves at risk for their faith. South Koreans are notable at these meetings for their absence. They simply don’t care, yet these foreigners did.

It occurred to me that unfortunately there were too many South Koreans, including myself, unaware of opportunities to help defectors. Some South Koreans assert that even though we have the same blood does not mean we are obliged to help them. Indeed assistance to North Korean people is a highly controversial issue in Korea.

Yet, what I learned there was that helping North Koreans is not necessarily about taking a political stance. No matter which side you take in politics you can help them if you set out to. That’s it. Those North Americans at the meeting were keen to lend a helping hand, not because they believed they had the same ethnic roots, but because they were human beings.

In the following Tuesday Catacombs meetings, we prepared and packed bunches of seeds to send to North Korean defectors via project partners of Helping Hands Korea, Mr. Peters’ organization. These seeds have since been clandestinely transported across the border into the hands of impoverished citizens of the North who plant them around their houses to help feed their families. After a few weeks, Professor Gavin asked me what I thought of helping Mr. Peters and his group. It was awesome and eye-opening. I told him how I had become motivated to act, even doing small things like packaging seeds. “Now I feel I am a North Korean activist, starting at a beginners’ level.”

Shim Jae-hong
Student, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies