NKFW 2021 - Open Borders hosted by The Isabella Foundation
Wednesday, April 28, 2021 at 7:00PM
Hello everybody and thank you for joining us tonight. I apologize for the long delay in starting. This is one of a number of programs that are happening this week as part of North Korea Freedom Week, which takes place once a year organized by the North Korea Freedom Coalition with Suzanne Scholte and Kim Seong Min on the US and Korean sides, respectively, leading the effort. It's been going on now for almost 20 years. And this year's theme is Open North Korea, which speaks for itself, Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Borders. And there are a number of exciting programs. So if you get a chance, look at the program. I think you've all been emailed the website and have access to it.
We are starting late and my great apologies for that. And the reason why we're starting late is because there has been a little bit of a misunderstanding. As you know, there is a 12-hour difference between us and Korea. The defectors who were speaking today are in Korea. And I think the time zones didn't translate correctly. So we are currently without the intended speakers because they thought that the time was in Korean time, and we're just in a little bit of a spot.
So what we shall do instead, and I greatly appreciate your patience, is we will have the organizer of the week speak, followed hopefully by the Korean organizer of the week, and then have a general discussion. So before we do that, a word about the sponsorship for the evening. The evening is being sponsored by Isabella Foundation. We are a charity with a mission to help North Korean orphans, both within North Korea getting them out of North Korea and those that are in China, helping them in China and helping them out of China. That was the original mission. We have expanded the mission in the last couple of years to also help women from North Korea who have been trafficked to China. And I think you all know that this has been a big issue. North Korean women going to China to earn money or get food for the family, food being scarce in North Korea, often go under this naive expectation that they'll find a job, send money back to North Korea, and return. They are taken across the border and then trafficked, sold into slavery, not just sex, but slavery period. So we are concerned with helping them and helping those that can't be helped.
With that, I would like to introduce the first non-planned speaker for the night, and that is Suzanne Scholte. Suzanne is a remarkable woman whom I have had the great fortune of knowing now for close to 15 years. So, way before North Korea was on anybody's mind, Suzanne realized the plight and hardship of the country, which is essentially one big concentration camp, and started, single-handedly, efforts to try to help the country and its people. And her energy is just phenomenal. No number of nuclear power plants can equal Suzanne's energy, and she has applied that energy across the spectrum of human rights in North Korea. She's also got an interest in human rights elsewhere in the world. But the spectrum of her activity is just astonishing. And it ranges from the single individual who is in distress in North Korea, China trying to escape to passing acts of Congress in the US and everything in between. She is probably the most engaged person in North Korean human rights. She has received recognition for that. Amongst that recognition is the Seoul Peace Prize, which is awarded I think once every three years or so and other recipients of that award before her were Vaclav Havel and George Shultz from the Czech Republic and the US Secretary of State.
So with that, I think we're very, very lucky to have Suzanne to talk to us. And Suzanne has been closely monitoring the situation in North Korea, as it has evolved during the COVID-19, which I think has struggled there, in terms of its consequences, extremely harshly. We don't know how bad it is in terms of health outcomes. But we know that the secondary consequences, namely on economy, people's welfare, and the policing of the state have been very severe. So, with that, Suzanne, thank you so much, and the floor is yours.
Well, thank you very much, Dr. Klein. I really appreciate you. With that incredible introduction, I want to thank Isabella Foundation for sponsoring this session. The theme for this 18th Annual North Freedom Week is Open North Korea. And we had a session earlier this week with AEI on opening the hearts of people in North Korea. And then just this evening, this afternoon, opening the minds of the people in North Korea. And now we're going to be talking about opening the borders of North Korea.
I want to start by saying that this pandemic is one of the reasons why we had to go virtual. Last year, North Korea Freedom Week was all virtual, but the events were isolated in the sense that they weren't interactive, like we're doing now. So, the thing that's unique about this year's North Korea Freedom Week is we were having the defectors present jointly with very well-known and highly regarded institute's here in the United States, like Isabella Foundation, so I'm really grateful for that.
Now, also because of the pandemic, we have a situation where we don't really know how bad things are in North Korea. This is an example of why opening borders, opening North Korea is so important. I want to tell you what the North Koreans say, what is said about North Korea, regarding COVID. And what are some of the facts that we do know. First of all, North Korea claims they have had no cases of COVID and that they have the best medical system in the world. So, they had the best responses to the pandemic. And they've refused help. Even the South Korean government offered to provide vaccinations but Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un's sister, rebuffed that saying they didn't need them. So that's what the North Koreans are claiming. But we don't really know the extent of what's going on in North Korea. And that's why it's so important for the opening for information and to continue to have this exchange of information back and forth and across borders. So, what is said, well, by WHO, if you go to the World Health Organization website and you look up the number of cases by country, there's information about all the different countries. The information in North Korea says that there's no confirmed cases of COVID. And there are no deaths. And all recent testing that North Korea has done has come back to be negative so that there's no new examples of COVID that have happened since the new year started.
So, what is fact? Now here's what we know is fact. We know that North Korea was the first country to shut down. They shut their border on January 22nd, 2020. They were the first country to shut down. And because of that close border with China, we expect that there actually was a severe outbreak of COVID in North Korea. Some of the rumors that we've heard have come out is that people were basically locked up that had COVID. We know that over this past year only 229 North Koreans were able to escape, which is a dramatic drop over the years. It's the lowest number in 20 years that were able to get out. We also know this: it is a fact that there's a shoot to kill order. So, North Korea has been terrified of COVID: they have a shoot to kill order, they have closed or shut their border down, and they have warned citizens in China to stay away from the North Korean border. And interesting to note is, and again I'm just giving you some of the facts that we do know, is that during the Eighth Congress meeting of the Korean Workers Party, we noticed that all the Korean Workers Party members, none of them were wearing masks! So, it is possible that they were able to prevent COVID from coming into Pyongyang. And we suspect, I'm giving you, that's a fact because you can see the pictures of the Korean Workers Party, but we suspect that they did have such a dramatic shutdown and they shut areas down that did have a COVID outbreak, that they were able to keep it out of Pyongyang.
Now all of this is to say that this is why information getting in and out of North Korea is so critically important. And some of the witnesses, which I hope will be joining, have been documenting what's actually happening inside the country. And we do believe, this is another fact, that Kim Jong Un has been warning that there is going to be another Arduous March. And so, what that tells us is that he is anticipating that there will be millions of people that may starve to death. So, there isn't a more important time, I believe, than right now to be coming up with ways that we can help open up the border of North Korea. For example, the South Korean government has been doing everything it can to stop information from going into North Korea. And we know that the people of North Korea are hungry for information. We also know that there are defectors that have made it to China that are in detention in China right now. And so, this is something that gives us an opportunity to get them safely resettled to South Korea. And that's something that we've been calling on the South Korean government to do. And as you know, Pavel, there's so many children, orphans and children, that have been impacted by the starvation. In the past, I know Isabella Foundation has been very involved in helping trafficked women and trying to help and shelter orphans. Well, we can anticipate that we probably have a situation that is just as bad as what happened in the past when there were so many children that lost their parents because of starvation during the Arduous March. So, one of the things that we're trying to do is to call on the humanitarian organizations, including the United States government, to offer humanitarian aid. It's something that the U.S. Congress has been very much in support of, and we have, we're going to have a lot, because of the Operation Warp Speed, the US is going to actually have a lot of extra COVID vaccines, and we should be offering to do what we can to help the people in North Korea. And I think that those are some constructive things that we can do. Because they also show the people of North Korea how the international community really cares about them.
One of the things that came out during some of the interviews we've had with some of the recent defectors is they had believed that the US government, if it was the Republicans that were in control, they wanted to destroy North Korea with nukes. If it's the Democrats in control, they think that the Democrats want to starve them to death. And of course, all of that's a complete lie, because the U.S. Congress has been completely united in standing up for the human rights of the North Korean people, but also in sanctioning the regime. And these economic sanctions have had a direct and powerful impact on the regime itself. We know that they have had an impact. But the North Korean people need to know that the U.S. Congress very carefully crafted the sanctions, so that they would not impact the people of North Korea. And that is something that the people in North Korea need to know. And that's why there is such an importance in getting information in: they need to know the truth about how our American people, how our Congress, how they deeply care about the people of North Korea. And unfortunately, we're in this really dangerous period, where the South Korean government is preventing the flow of information from going in and directly doing the bidding and doing the requests of the Kim regime.
So, it's really important for organizations like Isabella Foundation with the work that they're doing, to continue to be raising awareness about what's happening and trying to come up with ways to help save refugees in China, save trafficked women that have been trafficked, but also protect the orphans. So I just want to make those points about the situation and I know that Kim Seong-min is on. Regarding information, we are not having as many people escape as we have in the past, so I know that Kim Seong-min has been in direct contact and is continuing to get information out. So, it would be good to have Kim Seong-min share a bit about what he's hearing about the current situation in North Korea. Is there no COVID? Is everything fine? Are they getting ready for another Arduous March? And what are the things that he's hearing from people in North Korea? So, if we could have Kim Seong-min share his thoughts about the situation currently in North Korea.
And for those of you who may not know it Kim Seong Min is another extraordinary person who defected from North Korea quite some time ago, and has been actively disseminating information about North Korea, both in the out of North Korea and back into North Korea and has been running a radio broadcast that is run by defectors with him in charge and has got a network of information gathering within North Korea. That allows information to come out of North Korea and then be broadcast back into North Korea. The free North Korea radio is very popular in North Korea and listened to avidly and is a source of information for the West often not reported elsewhere. So, Kim Seong Min. Thank you.
We also see Kim Hee-yeon has joined us and maybe after Kim Seong Min shares a little bit about what information he has. We can go to Kim Hee-yeon.
Alright then, we are being joined by two of the speakers. And thank you so much for joining us. I know it's been a little bit of a challenge. So, thank you for joining us. And, Kim Hee-yeon, very nice to meet you. I'm Pavel Klein from the Isabella Foundation. Thank you so much for joining us tonight US time, morning, Seoul time. Are you ready?
So let me introduce Kim Hee-yeon. Kim Hee-yeon left North Korea in 2014. She had worked at Onsong Regional Propaganda Department as a painter, and she is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in business administration at the Kyung Hee University. She is the president of the Association for International North Korean Defector Women. She will talk to us about international cooperation to improve North Korean human rights. And we're very lucky to have her.
Now before Kim Hee-yeon starts, perhaps the rest of everybody else who is not speaking if we could put our microphones on mute. That would be wonderful. And if you wouldn't mind translating that into Korean that would be great. Thank you.
So, thank you so much. Kim Hee-yeon, you can start, thank you.
Kim Hee Yeon
My name is Kim Hee Yeon. I would like to speak about how to support the activities for North Korean women's human rights and first of all, I would like to thank Dr. Klein and Ms. Scholte for this opportunity, so that I could speak about North Korean women's human rights.
What I would like to touch upon is that in South Korea in 2019 there was Ms. Han Sung Ok who died from starvation. So not just about North Korean women's rights, there is an aspect that we have to pay attention to even for marginalized groups and women in South Korea. So we are trying to expand our activities not just for North Korea but the current situation is really dire and we're short on funds and aid and there's a lot of obstacles that we need to overcome. A lot of people say that North Korean people left the land of death. In North Korea there was no electricity, no food, and then after we came to South Korea they said there is electricity, there is food to eat. But then the reality of North Korean women who defected to South Korea, there are many North Korean people who are still in darkness and pain and they even regret. Why did we come? Why do we need to starve after we came to South Korea? So some people actually gave up their life. This is not just one person's work. We have to actively help our North Korean defectors to settle well in their new country. This is our pleading and our wish.
And according to this government, South Korean government policies, yes, they have to delegate their aid to different types of marginalized people. But then there is no specific or special aid available for North Korean people. I don't know if there was actually a policy that was designed to help us. But then the reality, the aid that we feel on our skin, it's not there, it's far from us. And, as I mentioned before, the North Korean defector starved to death. And of course, I would like to believe that the current administration will and is doing something to help North Korean refugees. But I don't know, the North Korean defectors or refugees that are actually living as South Korean citizens, the righteous citizens that have the right to all of the same policies and the benefits and help. So the single moms, the North Korean defectors, women who are single moms, and I just like to say that just because there is the basic freedom, you can go out on the street and walk on the street, and you have food to eat. That's not everything. That doesn't mean that this person is living a happy life. And remember, these people defected from North Korea, they are away from their family members and their friends, they are lonely in this new country. Even if there is aid available, then I have to speak of Han Sung Ok, a mom and son's starvation. And this was very discouraging, despairing for a lot of North Korean people who defected to South Korea. And I think they were just meeting basically the minimum living condition. So as the person who is in charge of this organization who is working to help these North Korean women, there are many different aids and help that are needed. And I think it has to be helped, not from just the Korean government, it has to be coming from outside of the country, as well.
North Korea, it was the country that we escaped. We grew up there and we gave up everything and we left the country and then came to another country to live better, but then the reality could be far from it. So I would like to say to Pavel Klein that I am pleading since you're here and currently the South Korean administration just cut off all the aid and fund benefits that were available to North Korean defectors, especially women. So, there are many different types of North Korean defectors. They were marginalized within a group that are North Korean defectors, and you need to find them and see how they're living. And I know that I am not really speaking very well, today, I am just speaking of whatever comes to my mind. And it lacks preparation, I guess. But then, once again, I sincerely hope, the new policies and help and aid will be available for this marginalized group within the North Korean defectors. So please help us, please do not stop paying attention to us. Thank you very much.
Thank you so much Kim Hee Yeon for that presentation.
I would like to ask if I'm Dr. Lee Ae Ran to speak. Dr. Lee Ae Ran left North Korea in 1999. She has a PhD in food and nutrition from the Ewha Women's University. She's the director of the Center for Free Unification Culture. She won an international food competition in Korea. She has been an ambassador of the National Unity. And in 2010, she won the United States State Department International Women of Courage Award. That's an award given to women with extraordinary engagement in dangerous and self-effacing situations. And she was presented that award by then Secretary Hillary Clinton. Dr. Lee Ae Ran will talk to us about human rights, women rights, and the food shortage situation in North Korea. So, thank you so much for joining us. And please the floor is yours, as we say in English.
Dr. Lee Ae-ran
Hello, everyone. Yes, I am here and thank you for the introduction. I apologize for our glitch in communication. I defected in 1999 and I was able to reap a lot of benefit more than other defectors. I would like to share a little bit about the human rights reality.
I want to share the reality of the human victim of human trafficking of North Korean women in China. They even called North Korean women in China as a pig. And that's such a telling reality. About 80% of our defectors are women, and many of them were victim of human trafficking in China. And they come to South Korea and try to settle. But none of the politicians in South Korea are paying attention to this plight. And many North Korean defector females suffer sexual violence and slave like labor and when they come to South Korea, they get victimized again in South Korea. And that's manifested in the Han Sung Ok incident where this mother and son starved to death. And many people question why didn't they ask for help? Why didn't they work? She was a victim of human trafficking. And she barely escaped to South Korea, and they began to settle. Now as a mother, she longed to see her child in China. So, she went back to China. And she ended up meeting that man again. And she came with that man to South Korea. While she was pregnant with the second child, she experienced physical abuse, violence. And because of that trauma, the child was born with a seizure handicap. And she has fits of seizure occasionally, so the mother had to take care of the child, she could not work. And the man was dysfunctional. So, she could not pay the phone bill. And her phone service was disconnected. And she was like a lonely island. So, she ended up starving to death with her child. So North Koreans in North Korea, in China, in South Korea, in all these three nations, North Korean women are suffering. Among 35,000 defectors, 80% are women, because that tells how severe the violation of human rights women in North Korea experience, in addition to the suffering in the domestic life they are engaging in. They suffer so much suffering during the journey of escaping from North Korea. It's a dangerous and very difficult journey in harsh conditions. They have to worry about their child, their child cannot cry on the way to escape. They have to worry about diapers and many other needs. So, the 80% of that 35,000 defectors means that North Korean, the situation of human rights suffering in North Korea, for women is worse than men.
So, when they come to South Korea, they know that freedom is more important than life itself. Now, I know this is the 18th year of North Korean Freedom Week and I believe that this event has to be held in Pyongyang someday. What North Korean people need the most is not food, but it's freedom. They are not ignorant people or stupid people. They hunger and thirst for freedom. They want to fight for freedom. They want to struggle for freedom, with their own strength. The wisdom and knowledge they want to achieve. They have the capacity to make North Korea one of the most prosperous nations in the world if they are given an opportunity. I know that the United States is like a benchmark for freedom and democracy. I thank you and I continue to encourage you for your effort to work for freedom in the Korean peninsula. And I heard about the emergence of the first South Korean government after World War II. I heard that many Korean compatriots in the foreign countries like the United States, like Syngman Rhee, insisted that the South Korean government has to be modeled after a free democratic government like the United States. Now, the 35,000 defectors in South Korea work together with the citizens of the world, so that they will topple the North Korean regime. And we want to give the gift of freedom to North Korea. We want to be able to establish a constitutional, democratic free government in North Korea. So, I want to continue to dedicate my life for this effort.
And now I have become the chairperson of a coalition for North Korean freedom. I regret that the South Korean government has passed an anti North Korean leaflet law. I learned that Park Sang Hak is missing right now. During this week, I would like to propose this Moon administration in South Korea, if they prevent the information from flowing into North Korea. I want to raise in other countries that we want to go to the core of the North Korean embassies in different countries, we all share, like awareness, almost like physically throwing the leaflets into the embassy building. I tried that in Spain. And even in New York, I know there is a North Korean embassy and I would like to dump leaflets into their building. So if the North Korean embassies are bombarded in all these countries with leaflets and information, maybe the North Korean government will plead to the South Korean government, please dismantle that anti-leaflet law. Maybe North Korea will pressure South Korea to lift the law.
Now North Korean people want to reform and open the society, but they have to have a roadmap. And I think these defectors can help them establish the roadmap so that their hope and plea for freedom is more concrete and has more direction and trajectory. And we'd like to assist in that effort. We have made a draft constitution for North Korea already. And we want to promote individual freedom, the right to own private property, and elections. These are some of the core values that we want to instill in the Constitution that will be for a new North Korea. And I believe that's one of the gifts, or the best gift that I can provide for my people in North Korea.
I thank you. Suzanne Scholte and Dr. Pavel Klein of Isabella Foundation. And I thank my colleagues for this freedom movement. I wish this kind of event could happen in front of White House or even in the United States Congress. I regret that we cannot meet in person, but I'm grateful for this online event and I am waiting for the time to meet in person. I encourage all of us to continue to work hard. And I especially thank you again for Suzanne Scholte and Dr. Pavel Klein. Freedom for North Korea! Democratization in North Korea! Let's all work together for this. Again, thank you. Great to see you Dr. Suzanne Scholte and thank you Kim Seong Min for organizing us at the last minute, thank you very much.
Thank you. So, with that, if I could introduce Han Soo-ae. She left North Korea in 2016. She attended school in Pyongyang. After graduation, she worked at a liaison office for South Korea for two years, she worked at a North Korean overseas restaurant in Cambodia. And she's currently attending Seoul Chugye University for the Arts. She has been a panelist on the South Korean TV show "Now On My Way to Meet You" which is a host show featuring North Korean defectors. She will talk to us about challenges of international humanitarian aid to North Korea. So, Han Soo-ae, thank you so much for joining us and please, the floor is yours.
Thank you so much. Hello, everybody. My name is Soo-ae Han. So, I was working in Pyongyang and an overseas restaurant. So first, let me thank you all the stakeholders and organizers for this meaningful event. And I just want to say this is my first time participating in a meeting or a session like this and I am a little nervous because I am talking with other North Korean defectors and organization organizers who are outside of the country.
I am Soo-ae Han and I lived in North Korea and you probably wonder why I am here. I was working at a liaison office for South Korea for two years, then I started working at a North Korean overseas restaurant in Cambodia. Naturally, because I was working overseas, there were a lot of restrictions and directions and “you should do this”, “you should not do this”... but then I met this guy. I ended up loving this guy more than Kim Jong Un! I don't know how that happened. This is like the flower that bloomed without fear on the border. And I felt like I wouldn't be able to continue living without him. And a lot of people actually said that it was meant to be, that heaven actually arranged our love and our meetings. And if really there is a God, I don't know how we met. So basically, I met the South Korean guy when I was working overseas, and it was the first time I could die for love. So we just escaped, literally risking our lives. We actually held poison, we were holding poison in our hands thinking about if we're captured, we're going to eat this poison and die together. It's hard to describe. You wouldn't know because I experienced it.
The North Korean defectors, there are 35,000 people, they really risked their lives and there were people who ended up dying while escaping and looking for free freedom. And I lived in Pyongyang when I was in North Korea. There are people in the rural area in North Korea, the living conditions or so when I talked to them and heard their story, there was a really big difference. So let's think about it. Why would these people have to cross the river? Why did they have to cross the Tumen River, risking their life? I mean, think about if there was enough food, if there was freedom, if there was no threat to their lives, why would they cross the river? But I was North Korean, and I still have my parents living in North Korea, and the humanitarian aid is great. I mean, I like that idea of sending materials and food and aid to North Korea because my parents are still living there. But when I lived in North Korea, there were many aids coming into North Korea, like the UN cookies.
And I never received any humanitarian aid actually. There were the cookies that I received, the UN cookies. When I was a child, when I was in school, someone told me this is the cookie that our General Kim sent you so that you can behave and study harder. And I just thought that the UN cookies are the name of the cookie like the Lotte sandwich or the Choco pie or whatever. And there is, I saw the medicine is coming from the UN company and through the UN. So, there is medicine for TB. As you know, many people suffer from tuberculosis, and one of my siblings, younger siblings. The medicine actually worked so well, I can tell. This is really humanitarian aid, and that is sent from the UN to help people who are suffering from TB. But the North Korean people actually have to pay for them. For example, my mother had to work so much and made money and then actually purchased the medicine. Whoever has these medicines, the price is what they say, like if they want to charge twice the price, they can sell one vial, they can sell two tablets, whatever they want. And even if you have money, sometimes the medicine is not available. So, you cannot buy it. So, the conclusion, my sister actually failed to permanently treat her condition. So, she has to just have this symptom for the rest of her life. She could have continued with the medication, but then she could not consistently take the medicine. She has TB permanently for the rest of her life. And when I think about that, I wake up in the middle of the night, even now, after this long, it makes me so angry.
Also, in South Korea, when you cook rice, you just use rice, and you rinse rice with water and you put it in a pot and then start cooking. This is like a dream story in North Korea, you have to pick out the shells of the rice and the tiny stones, you have to do that work all night long. My grandmother and grandfather were doing that. But now I know that the South Korean government sent tons of rice to North Korea, and the rice we received when we were in North Korea was so different from what I can have in South Korea. So where did that all go? I think the humanitarian aid actually when it ends up in North Korea, they just do a switcheroo. They just switch it out for the bad grade rice, not the pure rice. The rice we receive, it's not white, it’s very dark. So no matter how much South Korean aid comes into North Korea, it doesn't actually reach North Koreans.
So I can say, honestly, when was that? When was that? You gave us humanitarian aid? Because I haven't experienced it once when I was in North Korea, so I just don't know. I know the notion of it. But then I don't know what it is, from my own experience. Humanitarian aid is that it's helping people who are in need based on humanitarian needs, that's how I understand. But you have to make sure these humanitarian aids actually reaching the people in need, the North Korean people. Still now in North Korea, there are many people who blindly give their loyalty to the government. We have to change their minds, we have to open their minds, we have to let them know. And there is a saying that when the people of the country are stupid and ignorant, then the leader will do anything he wants, or she wants.
I thank you for listening to my story. I appreciate this opportunity to voice out my opinions. And so please continue to have your interest and please continue with your effort to help North Korean people. Thank you so much.
Thank you very much indeed for that very interesting presentation. Very sad presentation. So with that, we open the floor to questions. And I very much appreciate everybody staying on to answer questions.
Oh Pavel? I was just going to make a suggestion because we had asked that question to Kim Seong Min in the beginning, and then our friends got on, about what he's hearing from his informants inside North Korea about what's going on inside, what information? We don't know, do they have COVID? Do they have zero cases like the WHO lists? I'm just interested if Kim Seong Min could comment about what's the reality and what's going on? Are they going to have an Arduous March? Are we prepared for massive starvation?
Kim Seong Min
Already there have been 1800 Chinese tourists in North Korea and they already spread COVID, not just in Pyongyang, but all-over North Korea. So I think it spread very fast. They don't say that people died of COVID. They say acute pneumonia or acute fever. So a lot of people did die, but they don't say that it's COVID. And the North Korean government. They ask all the dead to be burned. And the North Korean government provided gasoline to use to burn the dead. But now it has spread all over North Korea. And they said Pyongyang cannot reach Kim Il Sung where Kim Jong Un is. They said it's about life and death of the state. And then it began to die down a little bit for a while but afterwards, now this second and third wave is going through North Korea. That's our estimate. I think North Korea is hit throughout North Korea, the third wave of COVID. And they are trying their best to get some vaccines into North Korea. That's what I hear.
So what I'd like to do then is wait with the questions for a little while. We have had Mr. Lee Wi-ruk join us. And perhaps he can say a few words. One of the interests of Isabella Foundation is to see how the orphans are dealt with in the orphanages. What is the situation there? And I think that's a topic that Mr. Lee Wi-ruk may address. So if the interpreter wouldn't mind just alerting Mr. Lee Wi-ruk to speak, and if everybody else put their microphones on mute.
So, Mr. Lee left North Korea in 2010 where he had been an orphan from 1998, aged 11. He has gotten a bachelor's degree in criminal justice at Dongkuk University, then a masters in forensic science at Dongkuk University, and he's now a PhD candidate in North Korean affairs at Dongkuk University. He will talk to us about the circumstances of North Korean orphanages and orphan rescues. So Mr. Lee Wi-ruk, thank you so much for joining us, please tell us your experience.
First of all, I will speak for about five to seven minutes. So I would like to speak about the reality of North Korean orphanages. So first of all, the structure of the North Korean orphanage and the second of all the children, the orphans, from orphanage, how they go out and settle into the society. Thirdly, I'd like to speak about why we need to help them to escape. And first, I feel like I need to introduce myself. I was born in 1988. And actually, my father was a policeman and I was well off. But then my father was persecuted, and he ended up going to this concentration camp for political criminals. My mom went to China to make money. But then she was actually human trafficked. So she was sold. So we didn't have anyone to take care of us. One day, we ended up in an orphanage, and I was eight years old, and my sister was 10 years old. I settled into an orphanage and I lived there for seven years. Then I served in the combat unit of the military. While I was serving in the military, I had one purpose. I wanted to become a party member of the Workers Party of North Korea. Because my family was all broken up, I had to rebuild my career by joining the party. But then I was working six days a week without getting paid for three and a half years. But I still could not become a member of the party because the reason was that I don't have a good background because my father was a political criminal. So it turned out I had no future in North Korea, no matter how hard I tried and made an effort. I just couldn't make it on my own. So I left North Korea in 2010. In August 2010, I came to South Korea and ever since I have been living in South Korea.
And I'd like to talk about how the normal orphanage was run in North Korea. So since I only have the firsthand experience about the orphanage that I was in, this is mostly about North Hamgyong province. There are three official orphanages, there was one in Kilju and Chungju. And the Kilju orphanage literally this is the elementary school and there was one for middle school students and there is a special orphanage for people who became an orphan because of their parents’ divorce. So ever since the Arduous March started, since then the characteristics of the orphanage have changed, because later on, they just put us all together, the regular orphans, the orphan has a one parent, we just all started living together. And, there was this one single woman who was actually running an orphanage, and she would receive benefits and aid from the government. She would send those orphans to the combat units in the military. There was also the collecting space, close to the train stations, initially they would collect captured orphans and put them in that post. Then later on, they were sent to an orphanage. It's just very inhumane. Let’s say Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Un said let's capture all the orphans on January 1, they will put them into this facility called a protection facility. Then after that, about three months later, they would be sent to orphanages.
Second of all, how orphans actually go back into society. There's nothing special about it if they’re just regular people. Once they graduate, they either go to another school, like college, or go to the army or something. But then the orphans are different. So, this is called a group collection. So they will just move as a group wherever they can be fed. So my own experience, I experienced a similar thing. And as I said that even though I worked really hard, it was because of my bad unreputable background.
So let me talk about the orphanage again, and the human rights of the orphanage. Abuse, assault, I don't know what you think of this, but it's quite serious. You probably have received a lot of photos. The orphans, they are very short. So we're talking about 16, 17 years of age, but then they're only as tall as elementary school students are in South Korea.
So there are cases that children actually ended up dying because of the beatings. Even if the teacher killed the children from beating, they're not going to be punished because officially on the paper it will be reported that the children died of diseases or something else. Sometimes the orphans are in a fight themselves. Some people ask, well, how can they be in a fight that ends up in death. But this is survival, They learn violence from the teachers. Like, if you hit this other kid with a fist, you're still weak, but if you use the baton or a club, and then beat this kid up, that you're stronger. So basically, the cruel reality of it is that there are people there, there are kids, they were killed by the teacher by the beating. But then there are more orphans who ended up dying, because they were in a fight and ended up killing each other. It's a terrifying situation.
Third, they die of labor. They go farming and they go to the mountain to collect the wood. Personally, we liked going out to the field to work, to farm. Actually, we like that opportunity, because it's probably the only opportunity for us to go outside of the orphanage, outside of the fence. We work, it's private work for the teachers. When we go out to work for them, they actually have to prepare food. Personally, not from the orphanage, so we could taste the food outside of the orphanage. So we really liked it.
Lastly, I want to speak about freedom. And basically, in North Korea, there was no freedom. But if you understand that people in orphanages, the orphans, have even less freedom than other North Korean people. If you go outside of the fence of the designated orphanage, that's illegal itself, you cannot go outside of the orphanage. So for example, if an orphan wanders about on the street, and foreign people actually end up seeing an orphan on the street, that's a shameful thing for the leader, our leader. So the orphans cannot go outside of the fence. As I said before, when we had to go out for private work for our teachers, we were able to go outside of the fence and then we actually like that. There are many details I'd like to explain, but I can answer later if you have more questions.
And another thing is sexual abuse. Let's say a girl is just a 5th or 6th grader, but then if they have developed a little early, they will be sexually abused, they will be touched and they will be actually dragged to someplace else, private, in front of us while we're watching. So sometimes they get pregnant, but then the teacher, they don't want this to be reported. And so they had to go through forced abortions and they all think it's the girl's fault.
So let's talk about the diseases that North Korean orphans suffer, for example, like skin rash. So you know that all over my body and that other rashes, it's infectious. So the orphans, all of the orphans, well actually what this is horrifying situation. They would set up a campfire in the orphanage backyard and they put this chemical for disinfection. They made us gather together and covered us with blankets so that we can actually be disinfected by this fire. It was so hot and it was unbearable. It's almost like a torture for us. So that was the most horrendous experience that I can recall.
Also I want to talk about the basic living situation, the food, and sleeping. And so it's very dirty and there are many bed bugs and insects and... maybe someone is trying to eat breakfast somewhere, but then I just have to talk about this unsanitary situation. And this was a part of play for us. Let's say you capture this bedbug. Since this bedbug ate my blood, if you eat the bedbug, that means you get to eat your own blood. And just something like that actually happens and during winter, they don't really care. Like just the girls or boys we will be all gathered together and forcibly put into this like large bath space. During the winter, officially you can only take a bath once during the winter. So that's why in this horrifying situation, the kids end up eating the bedbugs. And during the winter, the government gives you just one pair of clothes.
Ms. Soo-ae Han actually mentioned UN aid and the orphanage actually received a lot of UN aid. Without the aid we will just die, the orphans will die. And let's say the UN aid supplies us with flour, but then I myself never ate the bread that was made by white flour. So the reason being is that the price of white flour is twice the price of corn. So they would actually receive this flour then they would go out to the marketplace and then sell them and buy corn instead and bring the corn into the orphanage and give it to us. So while I was living there for seven years, we were starving. Not even the corn, we have to eat the skin and the shell of rice. This is what happened. If the children eat this, because it's so rich in fiber, your stomach will be swollen, it's so big and it's so very painful and you could die. The teacher would say, this is bad for you, do not eat it anymore, but then the kids are hungry, so they will still eat it.
So I think I've already said it, but then it's very simple. We need to help them out of North Korea and basically the whole North Korea is the country of slaves. It's slavery. But the orphanage, the orphans within North Korea are even worse slaves. And North Korean people, you can farm, you can do trading, you can actually work and at least try to make your living. But orphans are like trash, they were dumped into this one place and neglected. They're not even allowed to work for themselves or try to make living for themselves. And so we have to help them, we have to rescue them. And the will to live, the will to survive, I think it's many times stronger than regular, normal North Korean people. And in China, I just interviewed one person, he was an orphan in China. And the girls would be sold somewhere else. But then he has to go through a series of hard work, like mining and other stuff. I did the interview in South Korea. Well, they actually, at least in the beginning, the orphan who escaped from North Korea, even after they defected to South Korea, it was more difficult for them because even North Korean people have or try to have distance from these North Korean orphans who defected to South Korea. So I just want to emphasize that there is an ongoing need and a dire need to help them, to rescue them. So I think I shared this photo, how malnourished and short these orphans are. So thank you all for your attention and time.
Harrowing narrative and thank you so much for sharing that with us. The floor is open to questions, but if I may, I'd like to start with a question myself. And the question is to Mr. Lee Wi-ruk and the question is this, is the situation in the orphanages now similar to what it was when he was there? Is it as bad now? That would be the first question. The second question that I would have is how can we help?
I understood. Okay. First question is that? I will, I'll answer your first question. I can only guess about the current situation of orphanages in North Korea. But there's a limitation about fact finding because it's been a while since I defected. But if I were to guess, I'm sure it's worse than before. The reason I think that way is this, Kim Jong Un is talking about the Arduous March or march of suffering and the orphans will be the worst victims of that march. Since Kim Jong Un's administration, they have promoted the orphanage, the socialists in North Korea, they promoted the North Korean orphanages, but I knew that it was a show. The problem of orphanages, cannot be taken care of in one orphanage. They just set up a showcase, but it does not affect the entire orphan situation in North Korea. And as for the rest of orphans in North Korea, right now. This is like a post valley, the farming town agricultural time there they are drawn to the hard labor of weeding on the barley field. So we didn't have a proper tool. We had to use stones, because there were maybe 200 orphans but they only have 30 tools. So the younger children have to use a sharp stone. And we lined up and we had to be presentable. So we actually sang and marched. But that's just to hide the suffering. So what I guess is the current situation, at least it will be as bad as it was before or worse. Because under Kim Jong Un's regime, they are talking about this march of suffering and I believe that orphans will suffer worse in that situation.
Now, how we can help is this. I think direct aid to orphanages will have the most impact. And when I was an orphan, I saw a foreigner two times. One time they took the most malnourished children and took pictures and another time they took the most well-fed orphans and took pictures. So one was most malnourished and the other was when they were well fed. So I think they took those pictures so that they could see the before and after of the foreign aid, they wanted to show them. So before the aid they take on malnourished children, that doesn't mean that the situation of the orphans will improve. Actually when you increase food intake suddenly, actually more children die. More children die. Because they don't take any fat content. Because they eat corn grain powder, if they are given ramen, or some sort of a fat content, they suffer diarrhea and many of them die. So, under that situation, the foreigner has to directly go to the orphan, they have to do the fact finding, and they have to be directly involved with the aid. There are many aids from South Korea, or from the United Nations, none of those materials, aid can get to the orphans. So you have to firsthand go to the orphans and do some fact finding and actually give them the material. And in whatever you do, you'd have to be more informed, more close monitoring, and provide aid. Thank you.
We are running out of time, and because of logistical difficulties that we had, we won't be able to cover questions that we had hoped to cover, we will not be able to ask you all the questions that we had hoped to ask you.
So I'd like to apologize to the audience that we didn't get around to your questions. But unfortunately, we have had significant logistical difficulties. So as a sort of final wrap up, I'd like to ask Suzanne to sort of bring the meeting to a close. And I'd like to thank all the speakers for taking part under such pressure, I know that this came to you in an unexpected way. So I really appreciate your being able to, to do this at such short notice of change, and share your insights and experience with us. And we hope to be able to follow up on this. The purpose of the Freedom Week is not just to talk, but for the talk to lead to action, as Suzanne's motto is “Acta Non Verba”. And we hope to follow up with you after the week. So Suzanne.
Thank you so much, Dr. Pavel Klein, and the Isabella Foundation and our wonderful guests. And I do want to thank the audience for hanging with us. We've had to endure many challenges. I have a feeling there was something else going on with some of the technical problems we've had. And we will hear it from Jason, but we probably had some cyber-attacks going on. But I thought the witnesses were outstanding. And we certainly can make a video of this and cut out some of the times where we had lags because there was so much really valuable information that was shared.
So I do want to thank everybody for hanging with us and participating, and especially Isabella Foundation for covering the topic, Open Borders. There's such a wealth of areas about that particular topic and we probably gave you the heaviest number of topics to cover. But it is important. I think it's very valuable to know about the fear they have and we have about the misuse of humanitarian aid, we always want to send humanitarian aid, but we want it monitored to the point of consumption, to ensure it reaches the intended recipients, I think we certainly had that underscored with our witnesses tonight with how it was misused in the past because it wasn't properly monitored. They didn't allow it to be properly monitored. So thank you again to everybody for being here.
And Appogee, Jayu Bukhan! Apogee, Jayu Bukhan! Father, Free North Korea!
Kim Seong Min
Thank you, Suzanne. Thank you, Pavel. Thank you so much for the participants. Thank you very much. Thank you. Our thanks to you, our gratitude and appreciation. Thank you so much.