Bringing North Korean Refugees to Safety: Human Rights Activist Moon Guk Han
July 19, 2013
The following article appeared on pages 54-57 of the May 2013 issue of NK Vision magazine. Translation courtesy of John Cha.
What I Saw in North Korea
Mr. Moon Guk Han (문국한) is a businessman turned human rights activist. He represents North Korean Human Rights International (북한인권국제연대), an organization he set up to help refugees from North Korea. He believes that the government of North Korea is violating the rights of its own people. He says, “Twenty-four million North Koreans are nothing but slaves to the Kim regime, and it is time to take action, whatever it takes, to free them.”
Moon proposes that all the organizations related to North Korean affairs should form a solidarity with a mission “to free our fellow Koreans and plan actions to accomplish this task.”
Moon visited Dandong (단둥, 丹東) at the end of March this year to observe North Korea from China’s border town. He had a major role in a refugee incident in 2001, in which the Jang Gil Su (장길수) family sought refuge at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Beijing. He was also involved in another refugee case in Shenyang’s Japanese consulate for the Kim Han Mi (김한미) family in 2002 (see the bottom of this Reuters post for more information). The Chinese authorities banished Moon for his involvement in these high profile cases. Eventually, he was allowed back in after 10 years.
When he looked across the Apnok River (압록강) to Shinuiju (신의주), the border town on the North Korean side, he found that nothing had changed during those 10 years he was away. The town remained frozen as if the clock had stopped, so much in contrast with the burgeoning Dandong on the Chinese side. He went to a spot called Ho San Jang Sung (호산장성) and looked through his binoculars for hours to study and observe the lives across the river.
“It was Saturday afternoon. About 20 or 30 elementary school kids, supervised by a teacher, were bent over the field digging for vegetables, dandelions, and other plants that sprout in springtime. Soldiers sat in front of their guard post and looked at the Chinese side. No smoke arose out of the factory chimneys in Shinuiju. People appeared to subsist on plant roots and tree bark.”
Moon talked about his forced absence away from China. “I was always concerned about North Korean refugees. Those refugees who manage to make it to South Korea are protected by the government. But people remaining in North Korea or those who roam a third country need our help badly. For the past 10 years, I felt like a deserter who idly sat back in the rear instead of fighting on the front line.”
However, Moon was not entirely idle. He put on art exhibitions in Japan, the U.S., and Canada, showing art pieces by Jang Gil Su family members. Last summer he took the street exhibition on the road from Busan to Gangneung (강릉) along South Korea’s east coast for two months.
“People learn about North Korean conditions on TV, but they really don’t understand what goes on there. We have to know about their lives and show what they are up against in order to save them,” he said, emphasizing the need for exhibitions. Some of his colleagues ask if he has any new material to add to the show, worried that people would lose interest because of its repetitiveness. He replies to them, “How about Anne Frank’s Diary? It’s been around for years, but it still draws peoples’ attention. The Jang family’s artwork, despite having aged 15 years now, still conveys the appalling conditions in North Korea.”
He stresses that the Jang family’s artwork must take on the role of Anne Frank’s Diary written under duress during the Nazi era. Those who are familiar with the Jang family artwork may think that the artwork can no longer be useful in raising new interest, but that is not the case. People who come across the artwork for the first time are astonished and moved by its content.
Wanderer Turned Human Rights Activist
There is an interesting story about how Moon became a human rights activist. He had resigned from his job and set up a stationery trading business with China in the 1990s, when he had a chance to travel around China’s northeastern region. He took in ancient Korean historical sites from the Goguryo (고구려) and Balhae (발해) eras. He occasionally heard about conditions in North Korea during his travels, but he didn’t pay much attention to the stories because they seemed incredible. One day he visited Changbai (長白山) in the Jilin region and an ancient pagoda from the Balhae era. There he came in contact with North Koreans who had crossed the border from Hyesan (혜산) in search of food. He couldn’t believe the conditions they were in and he decided to check out what was going on in North Korea. He crossed the border.
“It was easy to cross the river back then. I stayed in Hoiryeong (회령) in North Hamkyung Province (함경북도) for a couple of days and observed the people and the marketplace.” Moon recalls, “First, the city smelled odd, strong and nauseating. I felt stifled and I had to get out of there.” He saw firsthand the tragic conditions a totalitarian dictatorship could place on a people and society. He felt compelled to help them and let the world know what was going on there. He folded his business and became an activist.
At first he thought that the problem was easy to tackle. He thought that all he had to do was to get the information out. Like many others, he thought that the regime couldn’t last very long. But the sad reality is that the Kim family dictatorship continues on today.
“You feel tremendous satisfaction each and every time you help someone through a harrowing escape and see them finally land in South Korea. You can’t know the exhilaration until you’ve experienced it. Refugees are constantly making their way to South Korea, so I can’t relax for a moment.”
Jang Gil Su’s Family Kicked Out of UNHCR Office after Three Days
Moon helped save the Jang family, and this incident became an important turning point in Moon’s life. He met the Jang family in 1998 and stayed with them for three years until they stormed the UNHCR office in Beijing. All those years, they had been hiding out in an apartment together, all 16 of them, making for a harrowing experience for everyone. They were not happy. They fought. Some suffered depression, requiring treatment. Their landlord was upset about the water usage, as 16 people took showers.
Moon came up with an answer. He set up a business of producing paper cranes and sold them to stores. The family situation changed overnight. With the money they earned, they paid for the apartment expenses. He paid them for additional pieces they produced, and everyone worked day and night folding paper cranes. Moon says, “They called me ‘Uncle Moon’ (큰 아버지) and when I visited them, they told me ‘Uncle Moon, why don’t you fold some birds, too,’ and laughed.” Moon continues, “Things in the hideout improved. We even found ways to cut down expenses by limiting their water usage.”
This enterprise taught Moon that worrying about the costs of unification was groundless. “We don’t have to worry about paying out tons of money after unification. We have to help them utilize their talent. Giving them hand-outs is not the way.”
The Jang family learned to help themselves. They stormed the UNHCR office in Beijing, and the Chinese authorities let them out of the country in three days, which was unprecedented. The Chinese decision had something to do with the Beijing Olympics. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was scrutinizing Beijing, a candidate for the Olympic site, and all eyes were focused on how China would handle the North Korean refugee issue.
The Case of Denied Refugee Status for 7 Refugees
Moon reflects on his past activities with a heavy heart. “I’ve had happy times and sad. Happy moments are short, but the sad moments linger long.” He did not succeed in all of his rescue attempts. He is haunted by one incident that keeps him up at night.
At dawn on August 26, 2002, seven refugees came to see Moon, three women and four men. They said, “We’ve been observing you for a while. If you help us, we will do whatever you ask.” He thought long and hard about what to do. He finally decided to petition the Chinese Foreign Ministry for refugee status for them. He composed in English and Chinese the application letter containing the words, “If these people go back to North Korea, they will be persecuted. So please help them obtain refugee status.” He also prepared signs made of cotton for them to wear under their shirts. The signs contained words, “Give us freedom, or give us death! (“자유 아니면 죽음을 달라”) and “Recognize North Koreans fleeing their country as refugees (“탈북자를 난민으로 인정하라”)!”
They took the letter to the Ministry, and Moon waited for news. He didn’t hear from them. The seven refugees were nowhere to be found. Reporters asked the Ministry for information about the seven, and the spokesman from the Ministry only replied, “No comment.”
Moon recollects: “At the time, I thought we had a 50-50 chance to obtain a refugee status. But I think we pushed too hard and it became a matter of pride for the Chinese bureaucrats. Maybe we became too cocky following our success with the UNHCR case and the Japanese consulate case.” He laments that he was unable to help them secure freedom. “The Chinese police repatriated them to North Korea. They are incarcerated in camps as traitors against the republic, or even worse. They trusted me with their lives, but I let them down. They sacrificed themselves for our cause. I don’t know how I will repay them for their suffering.”
Need for a Museum for North Korean Human Rights
North Korean human rights activists dream about building a memorial, similar to the Holocaust Museum that hold the names of the victims who had perished under Hitler’s Nazi regime. Today, a number of human rights organizations display the horrific conditions via street exhibits, but the exhibits are haphazard at best and leave a lot to be desired.
Moon says that exhibits in the Holocaust Museum sent shivers down his spine. “It gave an overwhelming sense that this must not ever happen again. Nobody explained to me what the museum was about, but the realization came to me naturally as I walked around the museum.”
Moon had an opportunity to tour the museum with Gil Su once. Curious about the young man’s reaction to the museum, Moon asked him what he thought. Gil Su replied, “No big difference from North Korea.”
“It was shocking to hear the boy tell me that Holocaust museum reminded him of North Korea,” recalls Moon. “How is this possible in the 21st century? I was overcome with the thought that we have to tell the world about this horror as soon as possible.”