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Interviews : Han Nam-su

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Han Nam-su was destined for a life among North Korea’s elite. The son of a military officer, Han and his family were afforded privileges that ordinary North Koreans didn’t have.

Things changed after Han’s father commented on the country’s need for economic reform; he was instantly branded a traitor, tried in a military court, and executed. Han was subsequently expelled from his university and exiled to a remote corner of the country with his family.

On Christmas Eve, 1998, Han decided to leave North Korea and pursue a better life elsewhere. He crossed the frozen Tumen River into China and remained there for the next six years working various odd jobs. In 2004, Han escaped to South Korea where he started a new life in a free society.

Attending Sogang University, Han majored in Diplomacy and Political Science. While there, he decided to raise awareness of the human rights abuses happening in North Korea and founded the Young Defectors' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights. As the organization’s leader, Han works to empower North Korean defectors through trainings, seminars, forums, and various campaigns on democratic governance. 

It’s really very difficult to put into words the kind of emotions and thoughts that were going through my head during that time. North Korea was a place that I had lived in my entire life. I had trusted the country.
It is the place where I had my family, parents, and all of my friends. North Korea is the place where I used to play with my friends.

To think that I can never return to this place; if I were to dare put these into words I would feel as though I were dying. It felt as though the heavens were falling on me. Just the fact that I had to stay alive and breathe was extremely painful for me.

I crossed the [Tumen] River on December 24th. After living in South Korea and China, I learned that December 24th is Christmas Eve and the birthday of Kim Jong Sook, the former wife of Kim Il Sung. I just happened to choose that date. In the winter time, North Korea’s northern region is extremely cold with temperatures reaching -24 to -25 degrees Celsius. [The Tumen River is a natural border between North Korea and China. Kim Il Sung (1912 – 1994) was the founder and leader of the North Korean state from 1948 until his death in 1994.]

The Tumen river was frozen on that day, so I simply walked across. I hadn’t realized it would be such a short walk. I had always thought that it was wide and deep
but because it was frozen, I walked across and found that the distance was shorter than I thought. That is how I reached China. /

I lived in Yanji, China. It was a place where many ethnic Koreans lived. Although it was China, I didn’t have to use the Chinese language, and could communicate with everyone in Korean. Of course I was very nervous at the time, but I think I was still able to make friends and lead a life. I think things could have been worse if I had gone to another area.

My first impression of Chinese society was that it had freedom, and that it was not like what you see in North Korea. When I looked at the Chinese way of thinking and way of life, I felt that they were living liberal lives and working hard for themselves. That was astonishing for me, and it gave me an opportunity to look back at what North Korean society was like.

In North Korea, when I was planning my escape, one of the people helping me introduced me to a Chinese person. I lived in this Chinese person’s house for a year or two when I entered into China. They lived in a rural area, so I had to do farming work. I had never engaged in any kind of farming work before.

After living in the farming area for some time, I became very curious of what the city looked like, so I just left. I went to the downtown area of Yanji and came across this person who helped me get employment at a hotel in Yanji.

I worked for this hotel up until I escaped China. I did all kinds of work including cleaning. Even when I was living in Yanji, I never really contemplated going to South Korea because I thought once I had made it there, I would never be able to return to my hometown again. I made the decision in 2004. I took a train from Yanji to Beijing and entered the office of the South Korean consulate.

I was helped by professional brokers who assist North Korean defectors reach South Korea. I entered the consulate of the Republic of Korea [South Korea] and spent six months there before arriving in South Korea later that year. 

North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a country of 23 million people in northeast Asia, ruled by Communist dictator Kim Jong-Un. His deceased predecessors—father, Kim Jong-Il, and grandfather, Kim Il-Sung – respectively retain the titles of “Eternal President” and “The Great Leader.”

The Korean War began in 1950, when Kim Il-Sung, backed by the Soviet Union and China, attacked South Korea. The conflict ended in a cease-fire rather than a peace treaty, and the border between the two Koreas remains tense and heavily militarized.

Kim Il-Sung employed harsh tactics to consolidate his power and propagated an extreme personality cult that has been continued by his successors. A blend of communist doctrine, state terror, xenophobia and hyper-nationalism has given North Korea its unique ideology. Despite some recent openings, North Korea remains largely isolated from the rest of the world.

With the end of Soviet communism and withdrawal of economic support, North Korea’s economy collapsed in the 1990s. A massive famine, aggravated by the regime’s indifference, killed as many as 2 million people between 1994 and 1998. While conditions have improved, even today, North Korea faces problems of malnutrition and insufficient access to food.

Tensions between North and South Korea remain high. In 2010, North Korea sank a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors and attacked a South Korean island, killing four civilians. North Korea has developed and tested nuclear weapons in contravention of several international agreements. The country withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 in order to test ballistic missiles and eventually a nuclear device. Multilateral negotiations have so far failed to constrain North Korea’s arms buildup and nuclear program.

North Korea is among the world’s most repressive states, engaging in widespread and systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, torture, forced abortion, arbitrary detention, and denial of the rights of expression, association, assembly, and religion. The government pervasively regulates all aspects of the lives of its citizens, each of whom is categorized as “core,” “wavering,” or “hostile,” according to the history of his or her family’s relationship with the regime. Access to housing, employment, education, and other social and economic goods depend heavily on these security classifications. The government determines where each citizen will live, and travel within the country is strictly limited.

Emigration is prohibited. Refugees who have escaped to China have frequently been forcibly returned to North Korea where they are imprisoned, subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, and sometimes executed. The government operates a network of forced labor camps for an estimated 120,000 political prisoners. While persons convicted of ordinary crimes serve fixed sentences, those convicted of political crimes are confined indefinitely. Punishment is extended to three generations – the offender’s parents, siblings, and children are also incarcerated, as a way to pressure North Koreans to conform. Political offenders are often denied food, clothing, and medical care, and many die in prison.

Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report classifies North Korea as “not free” and as one of nine nations whose lack of political rights and civil liberties are considered the “worst of the worst.”

More from Han Nam-su

Han Nam-su: Escaping from North Korea “It felt as though the heavens were falling on me.” Han Nam-su: A New Life “I was taught that South Korea was an American colony and many people were starving to death.” Han Nam-su: The Young Defectors Han Nam-su describes the goals of the NGO, The Young Defectors Alliance for North Korean Human Rights. “Defectors will lead future efforts to reconstruct North Korea.” More + Han Nam-su: Cracks in the Regime “You can find cases where a North Korean decides to escape after watching a South Korean soap opera.” Han Nam-su: International Support Discussing the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK: “The COI report is probably the most important document on North Korea.” Han Nam-su: Human Dignity “When you are born in a country like North Korea, you have to forfeit these rights.” Han Nam-su: Three Generations of Punishment “Kim Il-Sung once said that any person who has anti-government sentiments should be wiped out.” Han Nam-su: Background Han Nam-su describes growing up in North Korea and the effects of state propaganda. Han Nam-su: What is Freedom? “I think freedom refers to the right to lead a good life.” Han Nam-su: A Democratic Future? Han Nam-su discusses challenges and inspiration for North Korea’s democratization. Han Nam-su: Fear in China “The Chinese police are always on alert to find and arrest North Korean refugees.” Han Nam-su: Songbun Han Nam-su explains North Korea’s regime-imposed social castes. Han Nam-su: Democracy “A democratic government is the only form of government that strives to secure people’s freedom.”