North Korean Defectors Share Personal Stories at Pomona Talk


Two people stand on a stage and talk to each other
North Korean defector Kim Hak-Min shares a personal anecdote with the audience about life in North Korea at a panel on Saturday, Oct. 21, in Edmunds Ballroom at Pomona College. (Ian Poveda • The Student Life)

The 5Cs hosted a dialogue with defectors from North Korea for the first time last weekend. Bluebird NK, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering defectors as “the first citizens of a unified peninsula that has yet to come,” hosted the event in Edmund’s Ballroom at Pomona College as part of the “Free Speech in a Dangerous World” speaker series.

The defectors, Shin Dong Hyuk and Kim Hak Min, spoke of their individual experiences in North Korea, escaping the Kim family regime, and adjusting to their new lives in South Korea.

Shin presented his story as an analysis of the international perspective, saying he had lost faith in humanity upon witnessing what he described as the blissful ignorance of America and South Korea alongside the suffering in North Korea.

“Where is the international community when North Koreans are dying and starving?” he asked. “How many more must die before we achieve peace?”

Kim, whose story was also central to the New York Times bestselling novel “Escape from Camp 14,” shared a slightly more optimistic tale. Despite having seen his own mother and friends die of hunger at home and in labor camps, he resisted and fought for his own happiness out of North Korea.

“Life is too sad to live for oneself alone,” he said. He expressed enthusiasm for seeking careers and a family in South Korea.  

The dialogue was preceded by a talk by Tom Le, an assistant professor of politics at Pomona, who spoke about the role of the international community in building a shared understanding of North Korea.

“The North Korean crisis is the most complex issue of international relations today, and often the most simplified,” he said in his speech.

In an interview with TSL after the event, Le also spoke directly to a lack of knowledge among people in the United States.

“The issue is still a very small part of the public consciousness,” Le told TSL. “Most people think in terms of popular stereotypes in the media, and some Americans don’t even know the difference between North and South Korea.”

One attendee of the event, Rose Kim PZ ‘21, said the event was successful in highlighting the humanitarian crisis and spreading college within the campus community.

“It was really great that the event shed light on the fact that people are still suffering in North Korea, rather than the international nuclear problem,” she said. “Many people are still unaware of the reality of the situation in North Korea. It is often seen as a joke in the media and many people have yet to hold strong opinions on the political or social issues taking place.”

John Park PO ‘19, founder of Bluebird NK and the primary organizer of the dialogue, was excited about the turnout and hopeful about the conversations that it was able to spark.

“This is an amazing opportunity for Pomona students. By giving these defectors a platform to share their lived experiences, I think we were able to get more people involved, or at least interested, in the cause,” he said.

Park went on to highlight the relevance and significance of the North Korean crisis.

“This is an incredibly intersubjective issue that encompasses everything from individual human struggle and human societies to totalitarian regimes and nuclear warfare,” he said. “It is a historical issue to be. It could either be the greatest tragedy or the greatest success of our century.”

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