Academic journal article The Journal of East Asian Affairs

Hope by Itself Is Not Enough : The Soft Power of North Korean Defectors

Academic journal article The Journal of East Asian Affairs

Hope by Itself Is Not Enough : The Soft Power of North Korean Defectors

Article excerpt

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Introduction : Faith In The People Of North Korea

"We must place our faith in the people of North Korea, not in the system that imprisons them," Jang Jin-sung concludes at the end of his recent memoir about fleeing from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPR K, North Korea).1 The growing number of North Korean defectors speaking out about the injustices of that country's political system affirms Jang's point-the outside world must not lose faith in the strength and courage of the North Korean people themselves to bring about change in the DPRK. While foreign journalists and commentators of all backgrounds regularly report on Pyongyang's missile tests and rumored purges in the North Korean government, they should also stress the softpower of ordinary North Koreans to influence the fate of their country in the global arena. It was, for instance, the testimony of North Korean refugees before the United Nations' Human Rights Council that helped produce a scathing 372 page report on the North Korea government's human rights violations.2 As a result, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution in November 2014, calling on the UN Security Council to consider referring the DPR K's leadership to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. These events, leading to especially feverish denunciations from Kim Jong Un's regime, marked an unprecedented effort to hold Pyongyang accountable for its atrocious human rights record.

Alongside the testimonies of North Korean refugees before the United Nations Human Rights Council and other international organizations, a growing number of co-written memoirs by North Korean defectors are playing an important role in drawing public attention to the suffering of their people. Books by those who have leftthe DPR K, ranging from Kang Chol-hwan's The Aquariums of Pyongyang(2001)to Lee Hyeon-seo's The Girl With Seven Names(2015), have described the harsh realities of North Korean society and the desperate plight of those who flee to China. They have enabled readers to reflect on the common humanity of the North Korean people and to imagine-if only for a second-what it must be like to find one's own family facing starvation and/or imprisonment in a labor camp. Before recent years, observers all too rarely considered how ordinary families in North Korea have coped with hunger and political oppression. As the journalist Barbara Demick has noted in this regard, many did not stop " think that in the middle of this black hole, in this bleak, dark country where millions died of starvation, there is also love."3 That reality has now changed as the stories of North Koreans themselves prompt observers to see the people of the DPR K as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters-human beings first, "North Koreans" second.

Over the second half of the 20th century, popular media sources in the United State soften ignored the humanity of those who called the DPR K home. More commonly, journalists and politicians condemned North Korea as a foe that encompassed Kim Il Sung's government and its people as one and the same.4 While Republic of Korea (RO K)officials repeatedly described the North Korean people as victims of communism during the Cold War, there was little room in the Western media for reflection on the complexity of what it meant to be a product of the North Korean system-on what it was like to grow up in the DPR K through no choice of one's own.5

However, the North Korean famine over the second half of the 1990s-the so-called "Arduous March"-led the public to see the country in a new light. Media coverage of the famine-which killed at least 3% to 5% of the DPRK's population (between 600,000 and 1,000,000 people)-prompted many to consider the differences between ordinary North Koreans and the government that ruled them.6 Even while a wide number of reporters remained focused on Kim Jong Il and nuclear weapons when it came to reports about the DPR K, for many North Korea came to symbolize a humanitarian tragedy and the suffering of innocent people. …

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