On the evening of July 20, about 200 people packed inside Full Gospel San Francisco English Ministry church in the Western Addition to hear 30 North Korean defectors share what a press release promised would be "stories of persecution, death, and escape from the gulag state." The event was part of a five-day "San Francisco North Korean Refugees Mission Conference" organized by the Hometown Mission Association for North Korea, based in Everett, Wash.
It was a rare opportunity for Americans to hear from defectors firsthand (the audience was mostly people of Korean descent). Just 200 North Korean defectors are thought to be living in the United States, and what most Americans do know about their country is usually limited to images from the media: parades of militaristic might, caricatures of dumpy leaders, and bizarre displays of fanatical worship by its people.
Could this event help humanize North Koreans?
As someone who has written about North Korea before, I can tell you any discussion around the country is usually rife with politics. (I'll explain why later.) And this event was no different.
Before the audience could hear from the defectors, they had to sit through five guest speakers. Standing in front of a giant glowing cross, a minister, two professors, a human rights activist, and the South Korean consulate general in San Francisco took turns hammering home their point: the North Korean regime must be toppled.
"North Korea is the single most oppressed country on the face of the Earth," said Larry Diamond, a professor in political sociology at Stanford University who did not mince words. "It is the last surviving totalitarian regime — a living dark testimony to the human capacity for the complete exploitation and total domination of other human beings. It is the last country to systematically use concentration camps as a means of punishment and terror, to suppress its own people, all for the benefit of a megalomaniacal leader and small ruling elite."
The speeches went on for about an hour. When it was finally time for the defectors to speak, the audience was told their time would be limited because another event was taking place in the church immediately afterward. We were also warned not to take any photos of the defectors because some still have family members in North Korea who could be in jeopardy if the government finds out who they are.
The first defector to take the stage was a petite, middle-aged woman with a short haircut and a fancy, sparkly yellow skirt suit. But her composed demeanor belied the horrors of her life experience. Speaking with the help of a translator, she described through tears witnessing mass starvation and dead bodies in the streets after the death of Kim Il Sung, when food distribution halted. Her pregnant sister and husband were taken to a political prisoner's camp, where the sister lost her baby and eventually died from her injuries suffered at the hands of police. Later, her brother was killed by a train, and his children and widow all died of starvation. When she fled North Korea via the Tumen River, which borders China, she saw branches in the middle of the river wrapped with the hair of dead North Koreans.
The next testimony was more like testifying. The defector began her speech with a "hallelujah" and then went on to explain how God had allowed her to escape North Korea. She told of how her mother died when she was 14. How her brother lost an arm in an accident. How her brother-in-law starved to death, and her sister died while trying to cross the Tumen River. One of her nephews died of illness. Her three nieces became victims of human trafficking in China. She herself tried escaping several times but was captured and beaten. Eventually, she made it to China, where she thought about killing herself, but then heard the voice of God and decided otherwise. (North Korean defectors who resettle in South Korea have a suicide rate about three times the national average.) She also mentioned that God spoke through a donkey, that she saw a vision of God while meeting a missionary, and that she realized "the will of God" was to use Christians in North Korea "for the mission in this world." (Religion is outlawed in North Korea.)
After a short, third testimony from a young woman who lives in the United States, organizers brought all of the defectors on stage to stand before the audience and read something called the "North Korea Freedom Restoration Statement." The audience was asked to stand as well, and, collectively, the organizers instructed them to emphatically repeat the punctuating verb of each demand while pumping their fists in the air. (This was all done in Korean.) Essentially, their demands were for North Korean defectors to gain safe harbor in the United States, China, and South Korea; for Kim Jong Un's regime to be removed; and for the Korean peninsula to be unified under a liberal democratic government.
Hoping for some context of the event and why it was happening in San Francisco, I sat down with Rev. John S. Yoon, who founded the Hometown Mission Association for North Korea, which organized that event. He told me how he was helping defectors find food and housing in China, but he is now banned from the country. He's traveling around the world with defectors, he says, to "raise awareness of the truth in North Korea." Another defector told me they were spending their days sightseeing, praying, and sharing their stories.
While the testimonies of the North Korean defectors were certainly moving — and, indeed, horrifying — there are some who say these testimonies should be taken with a certain degree of skepticism.
Christine Ahn, a peace activist who has been arguing for a more contextualized view of North Korea and wants to avoid military intervention on the Korean peninsula, pointed out that some North Korean defectors are paid for their testimonies in South Korea.
"There have been North Korean defectors that have been given a platform and given big fancy PR packages," she says when I interview her in Berkeley the following night. "And there has been financing, including from the U.S. government through the North Korean Human Rights Act, to North Korea defector organizations in South Korea that train and cultivate people that can speak critically about the North Korean regime." (Ahn also noted that one of the speakers at the event was from the Human Rights Foundation, which supported the right-wing military coup of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez in 2002, according to the news site Truthout.)
"While their claims may be legitimate, defector stories are often used in the service of US and ROK [South Korean] government policies that seek to further isolate North Korea," Ahn says. "I've met defectors whose opinions vastly differ — they don't believe sanctions and isolation will improve conditions for their families still in North Korea."
This politicization of defector testimonies can encourage North Koreans to exaggerate their stories, she notes. Ahn pointed to the case of Shin Dong-hyuk, a defector who The New York Times called "the poster boy for human rights atrocities in North Korea," and who admitted last year that parts of his story were fabricated. Shin's shocking tale of escaping a brutal prison camp was the subject of the 2012 book Escape from Camp 14 by former Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden, and helped serve as evidence for a 2014 United Nations commission of inquiry report on human rights atrocities in North Korea.
But it turned out Shin had been in an entirely different (and less harsh) camp, and that he had lied about certain aspects of his torture. According to The Times, his story began to unravel after another defector recognized him.
"I knew I could hide it no longer, but I dithered because friends feared the damage my coming out might do to the movement for North Korean human rights," Shin told Times reporter Choe Sang-Hun. Another defector said he believed Shin's revised story was still a lie. Ironically, this politicization of defector testimony ultimately results in diminishing the reality of defectors' experiences.
While it is notoriously difficult to verify defector testimonies, Ahn says misinformation is also the result of "a combination of lazy journalism ... of what sells, what is scintillating, controversial."
But pointing out such facts is often viewed as a tacit endorsement of the repressive North Korean regime. For wanting to give voice to North Koreans, Ahn has been accused of supporting the dictatorship. Last May, she led a march of women activists — including Gloria Steinem — across the DMZ as a call to officially end the Korean War. As a result, she was red-baited and even accused of being an agent of Kim Jong Un.
John Cha, an Oakland author who has written about defectors and North Korea, says the defectors are the ones who get caught in the middle of all the politicking.
“They don’t want be used as political tools, they just want to move ahead,” he said. “They have personal goals and dreams, that’s why they defected. They’re just like everybody else.” Indeed, the defectors at the event said the main reason they fled North Korea was just to eat, to literally survive.
“Their commonality is they all want to go back home someday,” Cha continued, “and they can’t go home now.”