Young people from North Korea discuss human rights in North Korea in the ‘Heart of Freedom’ in the US

Global Peace Foundation
September 4, 2023

The following article is an unofficial translation of an article written by Jeong Kwang-seong in Korean for Monthly Chosun magazine. Read the original article HERE.

A group of young people posing for a photo in an office.

North Korean Young Leaders Assembly taking a commemorative photo with Linda Thomas Greenfield, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, in New York, USA (Photo courtesy of Monthly Chosun)

Young people from North Korea discuss human rights in North Korea in the ‘Heart of Freedom’ in the US

Written by Jeong Kwang-seong (Reporter for Monthly Chosun)

On July 10, 2023, twenty to thirty people gathered at the office of the Human Rights Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) in Washington, DC, USA. The audience gathered to listen to the stories of young North Koreans in their 20s and 30s living in South Korea and the United States.

Ten young people, originally from North Korea, were invited as speakers at HRNK. Those who attended as speakers were young people who attended the program called the North Korean Young Leaders Assembly. At the podium, they gave passionate speeches about freedom and human rights in fluent English and Korean. Talking about their hellish life in North Korea and the horrific human rights situation in North Korea, they introduced themselves as “young people preparing for the era of unification for freedom and hope.”

In particular, they go one step further from North Korean human rights activities performed by the older generation from North Korea in the past and gather young people who have been educated in South Korea or the United States and have expertise in their current position to form a new group dedicated to changing North Korea. They further emphasized that their goal was to prepare for the future of a unified Korean peninsula.

“We are united with one dream.”

Most of them are young North Koreans who are currently active in their respective fields with expertise. The young North Koreans come from a variety of backgrounds. The group is made up of a lawyer, architect, writer, software engineer, film director, and researcher, living in Korea and the United States.

Hyun-seung Lee, a researcher at the Global Peace Foundation, who played a key role in hosting the general assembly, said, “We are united by one dream. It is the young generation’s desire to make North Koreans enjoy the same freedom and human rights as we do in a free and unified Korea. When freedom starts to flow into North Korea, Kim Jong-un cannot survive.”

Researcher Hyun-seung Lee graduated from the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, one of North Korea’s elite training schools, and received a master’s degree in business administration from the Dongbei University of Finance and Economics in China after attending Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies. He defected with his family in 2014 and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at Columbia University.

Harry Kim, who graduated from the Department of Computer Engineering at the Kim Chaek University of Technology, called “North Korea’s KIST,” said, “There are many problems in North Korea, such as human rights violations and nuclear weapons, and the only solution is democratization of North Korea.” He said, “There is no clever idea to open up North Korea right away and lead it to the path of democratization.”

Harry Kim received computer education at Kim Chaek University of Technology and was dispatched abroad as an IT technician. Currently, he is living his life as a software engineer in the United States.

Attorney Cheol Lim, who passed the 11th bar exam of the Ministry of Justice in 2022, also stood on the podium that day. Attorney Lim is the second person from North Korea to pass the bar exam. He settled in Korea at the age of 15 and graduated from Korea University Law School and Seoul National University Law School. He shared, “The grave of my mother, who passed away due to illness, is in North Korea. He came to South Korea and became a lawyer, but he couldn’t help but be interested in North Korean society. It is the mission of young North Korean defectors, including me, to continue thinking about the North Korean people and human rights in North Korea. We will discuss what freedom and welfare are and continue our efforts to change North Korea.”

In March 2023, Seo-hyun Lee, who drew attention for reporting the human rights situation in North Korea at the UN Security Council, said, “The previous generation of North Korean defectors had no choice but to appeal to the international community with tears… However, our younger generation with higher education and various experiences, we hope that we can not only describe our own experiences and struggles for survival in North Korea and China but also offer solutions to the international community.”

Seo-hyun Lee completed elementary school at Geumseong Academy, where Kim Jong-un’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, graduated, then attended Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies and attended Kim Il-sung University’s Department of Foreign Languages ​​and Literature for two years. Afterward, she went on to study at Northeast China University of Finance and Economics. She is the younger sister of researcher Lee Hyun-seung. In the United States, she has been campaigning to publicize the reality of North Korea through YouTube’s “Pyonghattan (Pyongyang + Manhattan) TV” and the international lecture platform TEDx. She is currently pursuing an MA in International Relations at Columbia University on an Otto Warmbier Foundation scholarship.

 Visits to the White House and State Department

After the event at HRNK, the young leaders moved to the White House. It was the first time for most of the young people to visit the White House. Some of them hadn’t even visited the Yongsan presidential office in ROK yet but were excited about visiting the White House in the United States.

They had a roundtable meeting with Drew Abbesses, director of the Korean Peninsula at the National Security Council (NSC), for about an hour and a half. We cannot disclose the contents of the case as it is a confidential matter. The young people listened to the US policy on human rights in North Korea and the US position on the North Korean regime and expressed their opinions.

Drew Abbesses, director of the Korean Peninsula, welcomed young people from North Korea, probably because he had a close relationship with North Koreans while living in South Korea for several years in the past. After the meeting, he guided me to meaningful places in the White House.

As the young people left the White House, they were very encouraged that they, who were from North Korea, could express their opinions to the director in charge of the Korean Peninsula at the White House, the heart of the United States, and that their opinions could be reflected in American policy.

In Washington, DC, they visited not only the White House but also the State Department and talked with officials related to the Korean Peninsula for about an hour. In addition, he visited the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, talked with people in charge of human rights in North Korea, and conveyed the opinions of North Korean youth on North Korean human rights to them.

Researcher Hyun-seung Lee evaluated the dialogue with American policymakers as follows.

“The White House and State Department officials did not meet us just because we came, but we could see an effort to listen to our stories and reflect them in US policy. It is positive to see them more actively listening to our stories and asking questions. But we also need to be more prepared. Only then will these people try to get good ideas we have about what is lacking while making policies related to North Korea. How much influence we give to US policy toward North Korea may depend on how we prepare in the future.”

“Brave young people who became champions of freedom and human rights”

On my second day in Washington, DC, I visited the Heritage Foundation, a think tank of the Republican Party. Coincidentally, on this day, a seminar hosted by the Heritage Foundation was held under the theme of “The Future of the ROK-US Alliance in the Indo-Pacific Region.” The seminar panel was attended by South Korean Ambassador to the United States Cho Hyun-dong, Senator Bill Hagerty (Republican, Tennessee), who served as the US ambassador to Japan in the Trump administration, and Representative Young Kim (Republican, California), chair of the Asia-Pacific Subcommittee on the House Foreign Relations Committee.

Derrick Morgan, Executive Vice President of the Heritage Foundation, introduced the young leaders from North Korea who were sitting in the audience. “Today, brave young people who escaped from North Korea and are now champions of freedom and human rights are representing the North Korean Young Leaders Assembly,” said Derrick Morgan. “Thank you for joining us today, and thank you again for your courage.” The audience applauded the young people.

Afterward, the group visited the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Washington DC. Ambassador Cho Hyun-dong said that his parents were also from Hwanghae-do, and held the hands of each attendee. Ambassador Cho listened to the stories of young people for about an hour and once again emphasized the importance of human rights in North Korea.

On this evening, the group went to the Korean War Veterans Memorial Park to lay a wreath of the Korean War Veterans Memorial “19 Soldiers” with a reverent heart. Film director Eui-seong Cho (pseudonym), who had been staring at the wall of remembrance for a long time, said, “I really think about it a lot after coming here.”

Director Eui-seong Cho is from South Hamgyong Province, graduated from Yonsei University, and is currently working as a film director.

Looking at the phrase “FREEDOM IS NOT FREE” written next to the memorial wall, Seo-hyun Lee said, “I think these people once again tell us how precious freedom is.” I feel again that freedom is not free.”

Attorney Cheol Lim said, “A tragedy like the Korean War should never happen again on the Korean Peninsula… It is important to get together even if you have different political affiliations.”

After returning to their lodgings and having dinner, they exchanged various opinions about human rights in North Korea, sanctions against North Korea, food aid to North Korea, and the future of a unified Korean peninsula.

Most of the young people agreed on the North Korean food aid but differed on the methodology. Some young people argued that food aid should be provided under the condition of strict surveillance by South Korea, the United States, and the international community. On the other hand, there was also an opinion that a looser method should be used because North Korea rejects too intensive monitoring conditions in such a difficult situation that the phrase “the second Arduous March” came out.

In addition, young people from North Korea shared various opinions on what visions should be presented for North Korean human rights and unification of the Korean Peninsula in the future, and what kind of activities are needed in the future.

Kyung-il Cho, CEO of Peace Agora, who wrote the book To Aoji, graduated from the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Sungkyunkwan University and worked as a secretary of the former National Assembly Secretary General Kim Young-chun of the Democratic Party. He shared,

“I have been active on the side of the Democratic Party so far. As a result, I am a little different from other young people in terms of ideology. Even so, young people can gather in one place and have a conversation even if their policies or thoughts are slightly different. I think it is a great strength of young people that they do not insist that only they are right. I think it is important for us to come together even if we have different political parties or political inclinations.”

Song Nam, who works as an architectural designer, said:

“We are not people who work professionally for the purpose of improving human rights in North Korea. However, they gathered like this for the longing for their hometown, the improvement of human rights in North Korea, and the unification of the Korean Peninsula. It was a time to see our young people’s heartfelt affection for their hometowns and the improvement of human rights in North Korea, although each of them had different hometowns and environments and had different thoughts.”

Mi-yeon Kim, who worked as a media public relations officer at the British Embassy in Korea, studied at New York University to get her master’s degree in International Relations. She said, “As expected, I felt something different because young people gathered. As with any generation, it was the youth of that era who always led the change. It fills my heart to see our young people come together and come up with good ideas through discussions like this.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations thanks young people for their courage and advocacy for human rights

On July 14, the assembly met Linda Thomas Greenfield, US Ambassador to the United Nations, in New York to discuss the human rights issue in North Korea. Ambassador Greenfield arrived earlier than his official start time to meet young North Koreans. Ambassador Greenfield said, “Listening to the personal stories of the ten young people, I felt once again the seriousness of human rights in North Korea.”

Immediately after the meeting, Ambassador Thomas Greenfield told Social Network Service (SNS) that day, “I met young North Korean defectors who suffered from human rights violations and abuse in North Korea. The UN Security Council can no longer remain silent on this issue, which is a matter of international peace and security.”

Nate Evans, spokesperson for the US mission to the United Nations, said in a statement on the same day, “Ambassador Thomas Greenfield met with young North Korean defectors today. We thanked them for their courage and dedication to advocacy.”

“Today, I met with young North Korean defectors who suffered under Pyongyang’s human rights violations and abuses. I am humbled by their courage and thankful for their continued human rights advocacy.”

The youth also had lunch with Hwang Joon-kook, the Korean ambassador to the United Nations. Ambassador Hwang said, “In order to speed up the unification of the Korean Peninsula, the North Korean human rights issue must first be resolved.”

Seo-hyun Lee also said, “As the ambassador said, we will prepare a little more in the future and grow into talented people who will bring about a big change in human rights in North Korea.”

More than 100 diplomats from various countries attended the North Korean Human Rights Forum

On this day, a discussion on human rights in North Korea hosted by the South Korean representative to the United Nations was also held. At first, around 40 foreign diplomats were seated, but over time, the number of attendees increased, eventually reaching over 100.

South Korean Ambassador to the United Nations Hwang Joon-kook introduced young North Korean defectors, saying, “In the early days, these individuals were simply classified as North Korean defectors, but now they have become more than that. We call them Young Leaders because they have proven themselves through relentless courage and invaluable expertise in their respective fields.” Ambassador Hwang emphasized that “these young North Korean defectors will provide new insights that deepen the international community’s understanding of North Korean human rights issues and provide valuable perspective on why human rights in North Korea are so important.”

The young people were informed about the human rights situation in North Korea and made policy proposals to improve the lives of North Koreans. In particular, while emphasizing the human rights of North Koreans in China, they asked the international community to persuade China to prevent North Koreans from being forcibly repatriated from China.

Attorney Cheol Lim later said, “It was very meaningful and impressive that our young people had the opportunity to speak in front of diplomatic practitioners from around the world. They said they came as a team, so they all came to hear what we have to say.”

Seohyun Lee said, “Those who have been educated or received education in the U.S. have a different approach than in the past, and they speak rationally with sufficient grounds rather than simply appealing to emotions, so I think they were more persuasive to the listeners.”

Dae-hyun Park, CEO of Urion, a support group from North Korea, said, “Based on the pain, sadness, and pity that our ancestors experienced, our generation plays a role in explaining how we can make the international community go beyond sympathizing with the pain and take action.”

Immediately after the event, they moved to New York’s Otto Warmbier Street. In 2019, New York City Councilman Joe Borelli, a Republican, proposed an ordinance to rename the road connecting 43rd and 44th Streets in Manhattan, where the Permanent Mission of North Korea to the UN is located, to “Otto Warmbier Road” and to erect a road signboard. New York City is actively participating in this.

Otto Warmbier was illegally imprisoned for 17 months in January 2016 for committing “anti-state acts” while touring North Korea. In June 2017, he was released unconscious but died six days after returning home. Young people from North Korea laid flowers on Otto Warmbier Street and observed a moment of silence together.

A Transition to a New Era in North Korean Human Rights Activities

The young leaders from North Korea returned home on the 15th after completing their official schedule in the United States, which took place from July 10 to 14, 2023. The purpose of the “North Korean Young Leaders Assembly,” held in the United States for four nights and five days, was to help “transition to a new era of human rights activities in North Korea.” Of course, this meeting alone will not be able to achieve this goal. However, it is evaluated that the publicity for that purpose was sufficient.

Researcher Hyeon-seung Lee said, “We have no intention of degrading or looking badly at the North Korean human rights activities that the older generation has done.”

Attorney Cheol Lim said, “The older generation has played a decisive role in informing the international community of the disastrous human rights situation in North Korea. However, it is also true that the alternative was not suggested. In other words, it only served as a transmitter of information. Here, young people educated in a liberal democratic society are trying to offer an alternative.”

CEO Dae-hyun Park emphasized, “We prepared for this meeting two years ago,” and “cannot ignore the fact that it announced a new beginning through this opportunity.”

The North Korea Young Leader Assembly plans to gather again soon to have detailed discussions about the future direction while contemplating a new direction for North Korean human rights in their respective areas.

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