The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea brought to light the deplorable situation inside North Korea. The Commission’s excellent report gives us all the opportunity to hear and read the harrowing testimony of North Korean witnesses to the deeply disturbing crimes committed by the regime against its own people. “The Voices of North Korea” highlights personal stories that are at once all too familiar to many North Korean escapees, yet unimaginable to those of us living elsewhere. Now that the world has heard their voices, it is more important than ever to act on behalf of the suffering. We must not ignore these appalling human rights violations. Through increasing awareness of these stories of perseverance, we must seek to end this ruthless oppression.- Ambassador Robert R. King, Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues
Growing up in North Korea, Lee witnessed her first execution at age seven. She was one of the lucky few who managed to escape the brutal starvation during the 1996 famine. Hyeon-seo eventually escaped to China in 1997. In China, she routinely sent money to her family in North Korea until it was intercepted by North Korean officials. At that point she helped her family escape to China and eventually to Southeast Asia.
Lee currently resides in South Korea where she is a student and advocate for fellow refugees.
Background: During the famine, Seong-ho helped support his family by stealing coal to sell in the market. In 1996, he fell off a train and crushed his left hand and foot, leaving him permanently disabled. His disability made his escape across the Tumen River in 2008 all the more difficult. Seong-ho’s younger brother, Cheol-ho, helped him survive the treacherous river crossing into China, but they were forced to separate upon arrival to avoid arousing suspicion. They agreed they would swallow the poison they were carrying if they were caught. With the help of brokers and religious groups, Seong-ho trekked across China on his crutches and eventually reunited with his brother as well as his mother and sister in South Korea. Upon arriving in South Korea, the brothers were informed that their father had also attempted to escape, but he was caught by guards and died in their custody.
Current Status: The brothers are now students in South Korea and work to help other defectors through their organization Now, Action, Unity, Human Rights.
Background: Born in Pyongyang, Kang Chol-hwan grew up in relative luxury owing to his grandfather’s position and fortune. Though the family had never renounced their North Korean citizenship and Kang’s grandmother had been a staunch Party member in both Japan and the DPRK, Kang’s grandparents remained under a cloud of suspicion for having lived in Japan. In 1977, his grandfather was accused of treason and was sent to the notorious Seungho-ri political prison camp. Although he was only nine at the time, Kang, along with his extended family, were sent to Yodok labor camp (Camp 15), where they were forced to live and work in brutal conditions. His family was released ten years later. He continued to live in North Korea, but began listening to foreign radio broadcasts on a (illegal) receiver. A few years later, he escaped to South Korea. His sister, Mi-ho, who was seven when his family was imprisoned in Yodok, remains in North Korea and reportedly was sent back to Yodok with her 11 year old son in 2011.
Current Status: Kang’s exposure to South Korean radio broadcasts while living in the DPRK influenced his organization’s work in information dissemination. Kang is the founder and executive director of North Korea Strategy Center which is a defector-based organization which focuses on research, defector empowerment, and information dissemination into North Korea. He documented his life in Yodok in the book The Aquariums of Pyongyang (2001). Kang is also a staff writer for The Chosun Ilbo and president of the non-profit Democracy Network Against North Korean Gulag.
Background: Shin is the only person known to have successfully escaped from a “total-control zone” grade internment camp in North Korea. He was born from an arranged marriage in Kaechon (Camp 14) internment camp. The harsh realities of life in the camp prevented Shin from developing a bond or affection with his parents. Shin saw his mother as a competitor for their insufficient food rations. He wrote that he felt no remorse when he witnessed the public execution of his mother and brother at the age of 13, after he reported their escape plan to prison guards. Shin was bound by his hands and feet and hung over a fire for four days after reporting the escape plan. He still bears the scars from a hook used to pierce his skin to prevent him from writhing. Several years later, he developed an escape plan with a fellow inmate, and after a harrowing journey he made it to China and was eventually resettled in South Korea.
Current Status: Shin is the founder of InsideNK, a nongovernmental organization that seeks to raise awareness about North Korean human rights. He has given talks around the world about his experience in Camp 14 and his story has been documented in the book Escape from Camp 14. He is a staunch advocate of human rights and the eradication of prison camps in North Korea. Shin was the first witness in the UN’s first Commission of Inquiry on North Korea. In June 2013, Shin received the Moral Courage Award given by the Geneva-based non-governmental organization UN Watch.
Background: Kim Young-soon and her entire family were sent to a prison camp for Kim’s guilt by association with Song Hye-rim, the first wife of Kim Jong-il. Prior to her imprisonment, Kim Young-soon and Song Hye-rim were friends and dancers who performed before the “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung on his birthday. Kim lost her family and her privileged status in the ordeal. She survived 10 brutal years in Yodok political prison camp, but her parents died during their imprisonment. Wishing to escape the regime, she defected to South Korea in 2003. Kim, who resides in South Korea, holds the office of “female vice president of the Committee for the Democratization of North Korea.” She also contributed to the choreography of the popular musical “Yodok Story,” which premiered in the U.S. in 2006.
- Read North Korea’s Systematic, Widespread and Gross Human Rights Violations Demand International Action – 4/17/14
- Read U.S. Strongly Supports Commission of Inquiry on North Korea’s Call for Accountability – 3/17/14
- View our HumanRightsgov Facebook page for a video of excerpts of the testimony on human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea given to the Commission of Inquiry