Monday, March 05, 2012

What About Those Who are Left Behind?

Dear Korean,

How far SK is helping to these defectors by taking them in? As we all know that when a defector leaves NK and enters SK, his relatives back home are harassed by regime. Is it logical for a person or group of persons, to come out and take fresh air, while at the same time, making life for those left behind, a misery-elevated one ?


Narendra's question is a legitimate one, and a difficult one to answer. Mr. Joo Seong-Ha, who has been on the front line of the North Korean defector issue of late, gave his answer as to why he began this campaign.

*                     *                     *

I know the despair of the North Korean defector, being dragged back to North Korea in shackles. Because I experienced it myself. I know also the pain of the families, whose hearts wither as they watch their family members begin their repatriation of death. Because I experienced it myself. I know also the misery of being separated forever with the family who was dragged back. Because that is I, right now. I cannot describe those feelings in words.

On February 14, I wrote a letter to Chairman Hu Jintao, pleading that the 31 North Korean defectors, who were arrested in China on their way to South Korea, be released. I endeavored to write relevant articles every day, such that the flames of life-saving efforts would continue to spread. Now, the North Korea repatriation issue has gone international. I have received occasional praise for having done so. But I am in so much pain.

Actually, this development is against my personal conviction. Previously, I had thought that the more the issue of North Korea defectors in China was publicized, the greater the loss. For example, in the past, there used to be waves of North Korean defectors who broke into foreign embassies within China. The several dozens who succeeded lived, but the following sweep of North Korean defectors in China led to thousands of North Koreans being sent back. The flow of North Koreans to South Korea must continue like the frozen river, with the water flowing underneath the sheet of ice -- that was my conviction.

Then why did I do this. On February 8, 12 North Korean defectors who were headed to South Korea were arrested in Shenyang. I received the list of their names within hours. My decade-plus experience in handling the defector issue was telling me that they would ultimately be sent back to North Korea. In the six days until the local activists finally informed me that the under-the-table bargaining failed, I endlessly asked myself: do I bury this, or do I blow it up?

I know well the full meaning of blowing it up. It means that China would go into another sweep of North Korean defectors, leading to repatriation of those who might not have been caught otherwise. North Korea would stiffen up also. Tens of lives, perhaps hundreds of lives, depended on my choice.

But ultimately, I chose to blow it up. I determined that the flow of escape had already frozen over completely, because of Kim Jong-Un regime's redoubled border patrol and the treatment of defector that cannot possibly get any worse, as well as the favorable China-North Korea relations that can hardly get better. It is indisputable that, as of now, the difficulty of defection and the punishment of the defectors are the worst they have ever been. I judged that the benefits of burying this issue was dwarfed by the benefits of the international society focusing on this issue.

However, the critical reason that moved me is another one. I came face to face with the agonized cries of the families who were begging -- please, please save my family from death. Who could calculate anything in front of that. That they would continue the pain I suffered finally shook me.

Since my family has been sent back to North Korea, I spent my winter without heating my house. When I think of my family who would tremble from fear and terror in the frozen prison cell, I feel guilty even putting on a blanket. They had to live through my painful life again, spending sleepless nights only to show up to the work next day smiling. I had to place the feint hope of saving the defectors' life with the public opinion. But to the nameless defectors who will be harmed by the increased surveillance as the public opinion grows, I am a sinner.

It is impossible to know if my choice was the right one. That judgment cannot be made right now, nor can it be made by anyone else. Someday, only the conscience will be the judge. Until then, I can only hope that more lives are saved than sacrificed.

"나는 안다, 북송 탈북자의 절망을 . . ." [Dong-A Ilbo]

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. This article had me breaking down in uncontrollable sobs. For the first time I realize the extent of Mr. Joo Seong-ha's tormented soul, so much pain, agony and guilt.
    Please do not judge yourself now or ever, for you were only doing what you know best at the given time. Please heat your house and put on a blanket. My words probably are of little solace to all that you suffer, just know that we feel for you and your family, and will remember you in our prayers.

  2. I hadn't heard about this issue before, just signed the petition and am trying to spread it on FB/twitter/forums etc :(

    on an unrelated note, as of today I'm a fan of this very excellent blog! I have been reading your posts for about four hours and shall take a break now to digest the multitudinous pieces of information properly

  3. Thank you for translating his posts and I wonder if he knows how many people know more about North Korea because of him (and you). Hopefully in the long-run many more lives will be saved.

  4. First, thanks Korean for answering the query which was plaguing me since I read the book "Ten years in the North Gulag. THE AQUARIUMS OF PYONGYANG" written by Kang Chol Hwan and helped by Pierre Rigoulot. While reading this book, I went through the same feeling as writer had through his years spent in North. I came to know of this book and others, as I like to read lot and want to know much of Korea's history (NK/SK both).
    Just now I am reading Simon Winchester's KOREA (a nice travelogue) in which there is mention of Kwangju massacre, this also made me can a man kill some people so ruthlessly !??? Please suggest some book on Kwangju - if you know. Thnx again.


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