By Ha Young Kwen, 16, Wilson HS (Hacienda Heights)
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Ha Young is excited to host a screening at her school so more people can learn about what North Korean refugees have to go through.

Earlier this year, I saw a documentary about North Korea at my church. One scene showed North Korean boys scrounging for food in the mud with no shoes on. The movie explained that there’s a famine in North Korea. But what makes it worse is that the country’s leader, Kim Jong-il, gives his supporters and soldiers food while leaving millions hungry.

I was born in South Korea, which borders North Korea. North Koreans have the same hopes, dreams and fears as we do, but don’t have the same opportunities. I think of them as my brothers and sisters. It hurts to think that my people are dying because they don’t have enough food to eat.

I learned that North Korea is a dictatorship and the government holds absolute control over people’s lives. North Koreans don’t have freedom of speech, press or religion. People are sent to prison camps for the smallest reasons, like listening to a foreign radio station. No one can leave or enter the country.

However, those who are desperate for food and freedom risk their lives to leave. To escape North Korea, the only option is to swim across one of its rivers into China. North Korean soldiers patrol the rivers and if the soldiers see anyone trying to escape, they shoot them. In one scene from the documentary, a riverbank was lined with dead bodies, which reminded me of pictures I’ve seen in books about the Holocaust. Once in China, North Korean refugees have to hide from Chinese officials. If they’re caught, China sends them back to North Korea, where they could be tortured, sent to a prison camp or executed.

The film was about refugees hiding in China. They were trying to find safety, but most of them got sent back.

I understood their fear

I felt a bond with the refugees. There was a scene that showed refugees hiding in a safehouse in China. This reminded me of when I went to a secret shelter with my mom and brother to get away from my abusive dad eight years ago. I know what it feels like to live in fear and uncertainty. Whenever I went to school, I worried my dad would find me to get to my mom. I didn’t know where we would live after the shelter and how we could afford to rent an apartment if my mom couldn’t get a job. About a month after being in the shelter, my mom got a job and we moved into a small apartment. I cried watching the refugees go through a more difficult situation. I knew I had to help in some way.

A woman is stopped by Chinese guards as she tries to get into the Japanese consulate in China. Refugees are sent back to North Korea if they are caught by Chinese authorities. Photo courtesy of Incite Productions

After the film, a speaker from LiNK (Liberty in North Korea), an organization that raises awareness about the North Korean crisis, asked us to support their cause by buying a DVD of Seoul Train (Seoul is the capital of South Korea), the movie we had just watched. I bought the DVD to show my friends so they could share my passion to end this crisis. At school, I let my friend borrow the DVD, but he left it in his locker for a few weeks and never watched it. I felt discouraged.

But a few weeks later, I was given an opportunity to show Seoul Train. I had a substitute teacher for Spanish class. At the end of each week, the substitute allowed students to bring in movies to learn about other cultures. I asked the teacher if I could share Seoul Train with the class. The teacher was reluctant at first because she worried that a documentary would bore the students but she later agreed.

Would my classmates care?

I was anxious about how my classmates would react to the documentary. Would they find it boring or would they be shocked just as I was?

In one scene, a family of North Korean refugees in China attempted to get into the Japanese consulate (an office of the Japanese government) with hopes of receiving help. The refugees needed to run past the gate without being captured by Chinese policemen who guarded the entrance. The husband and uncle were supposed to stall the police so the wife, little girl and grandmother could get in first. But the men ran in first—maybe because they were nervous—and the women and child were caught by the police.

My classmates watched silently as the women screamed hysterically. I could feel the tension and shock in the room. A friend of mine had her eyes open wide in disbelief and covered her mouth with both hands. Afterward, a friend came up to me and asked, “Is this happening right now?” I told her yes.

If kids in my Spanish class didn’t know about this crisis, there are others who don’t know about it either. We never see media coverage of humanitarian problems in North Korea. On the news, reporters talk about North Korea testing nuclear missiles. Because of that, many people assume all North Koreans are trying to nuke the United States. It is the government that makes those threats, not the millions who suffer under its control.

I want to tell others about this crisis. I started a LiNK club at school to raise money and awareness for the North Korean refugees who have gone unnoticed for too long.

Click here to read Ha Young’s interview with a refugee from North Korean who now lives in the United States.