Stay Conscious and Stay Alive
It can be easy to forget that interesting, news worthy things happen right here at Queen’s too, but this week Queen’s hosted a very special visitor for an interesting and engaging talk held right in Sir John A MacDonald Hall. That visitor was Audrey Park, a young North Korean defector brought to speak to us by the Queen’s University chapter of Han Voice.
Han Voice is Canada’s largest organization advocating for improved human rights in North Korea. One of their main programs is the Pioneer Project, which aims to empower North Korean refugees to build capacity within their own diaspora. The Queen’s chapter of Han Voice is a relatively new one, but if this event is any indication, they are a strong group and there is a lot of interest and support at Queen’s on these issues.
The event began with an explanation of the refugee context by two professors from the politics department. Although these speakers did not comment substantially on the specifics of the situation of North Korea, it was an engaging discussion that did touch on the barriers North Koreans would face when attempting to become recognized refugees.
However, the real star of the event was when Audrey Park came to the front to tell her personal story. I know I cannot do her story justice, but I will do my best.
Audrey Park grew up in rural North Korea near the China-North Korea border. Along this border runs the Tumen River, which is where Audrey and her mother crossed. Audrey also has a younger sister who, at the time of their escape, was too young to come with them. Instead, it was just Audrey and her mother who made the crossing. In order to leave, they were forced to bribe a member of the North Korean military. They said they would come back in 3 days and bring him more money – Audrey admits that she does not think the man believed them, but he let them through – and of course they did not return in that time.
Reaching China did not end their challenges – the Chinese government does not recognize North Koreans as refugees and sends North Koreans back to North Korea. Her mother began looking for a broker (aka a human trafficker) to get them out of China, but when they found one Audrey and her mother were separated. Audrey was young and says this was the most terrifying time of her life. The two were reunited, but unfortunately for Audrey and her mother, they were found and returned to North Korea. However, one does not simply return to North Korea. Instead, refugees forced to return are sent to camps.
Audrey set out that there are three types of camps. The first are labor camps – where North Koreans will be sent for a time to do hard labor during the day and re-education at night. The second are political camps – these camps you will often stay for 2-3 years. And the third are political concentration camps. If sent to this third type of camp you will die there. Fortunately for Audrey and her mother they were sent to a labor camp.
Eventually they were freed and, like most if not all North Koreans in their situation made another attempt at escape. The final involved them walking through the freezing Gobi Desert in Mongolia trying to find someone to smuggle them to South Korea. They were lucky.
Audrey spoke of her life in South Korea and of the difficulties she faced there. She said that the single most difficult thing she found in regards to integration was not having the shared cultural experiences as her peers. She describes using the internet to look up popular South Korean singers and celebrities so she could be included in conversations. Her sister has since also left North Korea and Audrey has come to Canada as a Han Voice Pioneer.
Queen’s was lucky to be able to host such an incredible young woman and it is events like this that bring the larger world events that we read in the national and international newspapers to life. Take advantage of these events while you can.
Kali Larsen (2L) is the News Editor for Juris Diction