North Korean starvation detailed

Defectors reveal tales of widespread malnutrition and censorship under current regime, and the daring humanitarian work of one anonymous local pastor

Seattle Post-Intelligencer/November 26, 2003
By John Iwasaki

Dark clouds drifted in and lightning flashed as the mother uprooted plants on a North Korean mountainside, searching for anything edible to feed her emaciated son.

She heard the cry of crows and grew anxious. After hurrying home, she made a thin soup and tried to wake her child.

"But there was no response," recalled the mother, Ok Soon Hong. "He was cold and dead. ... He was so young and so beautiful, but was gone forever. I could not do anything but cry all night in deep grievance, wondering what happened to Korea."

Hong is in the midst of a monthlong trip to the United States, including Seattle, speaking at Korean American churches about her transformation from "an ordinary housewife" to a survivor of North Korea's oppressive regime.

Her father was arrested on unknown charges and executed. Ten other family members, including two toddler nephews, were taken to a prison camp after a distant relative fell into political disfavor.

Hong and another defector, Gi Chul Park -- to protect family still in North Korea, they use pseudonyms and asked that their real names not be published -- recently spoke at churches in the Seattle area and in Vancouver, B.C. They left this week for California.

They say food is so scarce in North Korea, even tales of cannibalism aren't far-fetched. They also say that the Communist regime forces women to undergo abortions, practices infanticide and punishes citizens for communicating with a South Korean or being a Christian.

Hong, 56, and Park, 68, separately fled from North Korea in 1997, crossing the Tumen and Yalu rivers to China, where a Seattle-area pastor aided their escape to South Korea.

The pastor, a missionary for a Pentecostal denomination and a native of what is now North Korea, said he has helped more than 60 people defect in the past six years.

The work is risky. If discovered by Chinese authorities, defectors are returned home, where they face imprisonment and possible torture. Those who assist the defectors could join them in punishment.

There is "no other country that needs the Gospel more than North Korea," said the pastor, who asked that his name not be published because he plans more trips to China.

Besides spiritual restoration, he agrees with Hong and Park that helping defectors has humanitarian and political purposes, starting with saving lives of those experiencing malnutrition and starvation.

Sharing first-person accounts of life in the Communist country also may spur American support for political solutions, such as two bills in Congress that would allow North Koreans to apply for refugee status or asylum in the United States.

Nearly 2,300 Korean Americans from Seattle to Tacoma signed petitions last month in support of the legislation, said Simon Lee, an elder at Tacoma Joong-Ang Presbyterian Church.

"Many people are praying about that," Lee said.

The state Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs this month passed a resolution in support of the bills, S1336 and HR367, saying it was doing so "in collaboration with the Korean community, numbering 46,880 in Washington state."

"Once the U.S. grants asylum, the Yalu River will be flooded with refugees," predicted Park, whose monthly pay at a carpenter's shop in North Korea was equivalent to the cost of "about two chunks of bread."

But the main reason for shedding light on conditions in North Korea is nothing short of bringing down the current regime, say Hong, Park and the pastor.

They say North Koreans have been brainwashed -- to hate the Untied States and distrust South Korea -- by Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung, who preceded him as paramount leader.

"While (Kim Jong Il) lives like royalty in Pyongyang, he keeps hundreds of thousands of his people locked in prison camps with millions more mired in abject poverty, scrounging the ground for food," said John Bolton, U.S. undersecretary for arms control and international security affairs, in a July speech in Seoul.

"For many in North Korea, life is a hellish nightmare."

Last week, a group of United Nations agencies asked for $221 million in international aid for North Korea, mostly for food.

Hong said food sent by the U.S. to North Korea is diverted to the military, leaving the average citizen unaware of aid from the West.

If starving North Koreans really knew how much better living conditions are in South Korea and the United States, she believes they would rise up and help "demolish the North Korean regime."

To publicize the cause of defectors, the pastor has gathered dozens of first-person accounts and published them in books in Korean and English.

The cover of the English version, "Axis of Evil," shows the face of Kim Jong Il suspended in the cloud of a nuclear blast, a not-so-subtle reference to North Korea's nuclear weapon ambitions.

The book includes a statement by Hwang Jang Hyup, North Korea's highest-ranking defector, who visited Washington, D.C., for the first time late last month.

"Kim Jong Il is a dictator who has starved millions of North Korean(s) to death. He also made North Korea into a gigantic prison," wrote Hyup, once chief of North Korea's Parliament.

"Axis of Evil" includes photos of skeletal adults and children and gives accounts of desperate people eating bark, weeds, pig feed -- and humans, sometimes by people who have gone insane.

Hong and Park say the reality is "worse than described" in the book.

Until recent years, "the stories of the relatively few defectors were suspect, viewed as propaganda tools of the South Korean government," the Washington Post recently reported.

But now, with defectors numbering at least in the tens of thousands, "their accounts have gained credibility by their number and their consistency, and by corroboration from the few outsiders who have worked in North Korea," the paper said, citing interviews with dozens of defectors in Seoul.

To help defectors earn money to send to their families in North Korea, the Seattle-area pastor had them make crafts that they could sell when visiting U.S. churches, including wooden crosses and cross-stitched Christian images or messages.

One cross-stitch pattern shows an outline of praying hands and the first 12 words of an oft-quoted prayer that may seem fitting for the situation in North Korea:

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. ..."

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