The Senate Committee on Human Rights met this day at 11:30 a.m.
to monitor issues relating to human rights and, inter alia, to review the
machinery of government dealing with Canada’s international and national human
rights obligations (topic: the human rights situation and defections from North
Senator Jim Munson (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: Senators, we are dealing with our issue of
North Korea — the human rights situation in North Korea and defections from
North Korea. It is a very serious subject matter. I am pleased that we will have
a study of this situation.
First I would like to have the senators introduce themselves.
Senator Nancy Ruth: Senator Nancy Ruth from Toronto,
Senator Ngo: Senator Ngo from Ontario.
Senator Jaffer: Senator Jaffer from British Columbia.
Senator Hubley: Senator Hubley, Prince Edward Island.
Senator Andreychuk: Senator Andreychuk, Saskatchewan.
Senator Cordy: Senator Jane Cordy from Nova Scotia.
Senator Martin: Senator Yonah Martin, British Columbia.
The Chair: I am Senator Munson from Ontario, and your
Today, we are studying the human rights
situation in and defections from North Korea, under another general order of
On our first panel, we will have one witness appearing via video
conference from Seoul, where I understand it is after midnight: Hyeonseo Lee,
author of The Girl with Seven Names.
Ms. Lee, you have the floor, and of course senators will have
many questions for you. We are delighted to have you with us. This is an
extremely important subject matter. The floor is yours, Ms. Lee.
Hyeonseo Lee, Author of The Girl with Seven Names,
as an individual: Hello, everyone. Thank you for having me.
Afterescaping North Korea, I was hiding in China for about 10
years before coming to South Korea. Thirteen years later, I went back to the
border between Thailand and North Korea to guide my family to freedom. After a
huge risk, by risking my life through several close encounters with the Chinese
police in China and my family's imprisonment in Laos, we are now finally
reunited in South Korea.
Living in North Korea is not like living in other countries. It
is more like living in another universe. I will never truly be free of its
gravity, no matter how far I journey.
When I was a young girl in North Korea, I woke up one night
choking on thick, black smoke. My parents screamed at me and my little brother
to get out of our home, as it was consumed by a huge fire. Outside, my brother
and I continued choking, but our father did not check to see if we were okay.
Instead, he immediately ran back inside the house and risked his life to salvage
the most important possessions: portraits of two dictators which are required to
be hung in every North Korean's home. If he failed to save them, he would have
been punished. He was afraid not of risking his own children's lives; he was
more concerned about saving the images of the old leaders. At the time, nobody,
including me, thought this was strange; nor was it strange to see government
officials with white gloves who would come to every house to check for dust on
the pictures of dictators. After escaping from the country, I realized that
these are only small examples of how North Koreans are tragically oppressed and
We grew up amid constant public executions in North Korea. I saw
my first public execution when I was seven — a man who was hanging by his neck
under a railroad bridge. I saw another public execution where a man was shot in
the head in front of his family.
The regime told us that those people who are in political prison
camps and who are publicly executed are criminals who deserve to be punished, so
we didn't have sympathy for them. However, I was scared. The constant executions
kept reminding me that I shouldn't do anything to disobey our leadership, the
government; otherwise I will be killed, just as the person in front of me.
The biggest famine in North Korea started in the mid-1990s and
killed more than 1 million people. This tragically changed life inside North
Korea, including the way North Koreans think and behave. During that time, if we
went near the train station or under the bridge, we could easily see dead
bodies, which were not removed. This gave people goosebumps as they passed and
made them scared.
Also during that time, because we were living right next to the
border with China, our television could pick up a few Chinese TV channels. I
could secretly watch Chinese TV in my house, which was illegal. If I was caught,
my whole family would be punished severely. At night, I blocked the windows with
curtains and extra-thick blankets, and I watched TV. Chinese TV transformed my
life completely. I learned from school that North Korea was much superior to
China. However, since I was living right next to the border, I could compare
on my own a list that North Korea was not the best.
At the time, when I stared at the border, I simultaneously saw
two worlds. One eye witnessed the darkness of my homeland, while the other
witnessed the bright, vibrant colours of another, bigger world just across the
river from North Korea. The attraction and the curiosity this created led me to
cross the border.
As a young, naive girl at the time, I couldn't imagine that I
would be separated from my family for so long, nor could I have realized that I
would have to now avoid the bright, new world in China and would have to live in
the shadows. I was hunted by the Chinese authorities all the time, simply
because I was a North Korean defector. Eventually I was caught by the police;
however, I narrowly avoided being repatriated to North Korea after convincing
them that I was actually a Chinese citizen.
Due to the hardships surrounding me, I had to change my name so
many times to protect myself and to protect my family inside North Korea. That
is why I became “the girl with seven names.”
Most North Korean refugees are women, and unfortunately they are
subjected to horrible abuse along their journey to freedom, especially in China.
Many female refugees become sex slaves or wives of Chinese men after they are
captured. Sadly, some have even been willingly sold as prizes in order to earn
money or to help their desperate families at home. Women are treated like
merchandise and sold like slaves for as low as $80, depending on their age and
We are all the same people, so we should all have the same
rights. However, the only reason North Korean defectors are suffering is because
of our sin of being born inside North Korea.
Therefore, I would like to ask anyone here today who has the
possibility to change this situation to help the suffering North Korean people
and start pressuring China and other countries to stop arresting and
repatriating North Korean defectors back to North Korea, where they will face
severe punishment. Torture is standard, as well as imprisonment and sometimes
China does not honour its commitment to protect refugees. It
shockingly allows the North Korean regime to dictate its own domestic policy on
refugees. Without China, the North Korean regime could not survive; we know
that. However, China has no obligation to follow the North Korean regime's
demands on refugee issues, so I sincerely want to ask you to pressure China to
do the right thing. Thank you for listening.
The Chair: Ms. Lee, thank you very much. We can certainly
feel the emotion in your testimony. You said that living in North Korea is
living in another universe. In my other universe of life, I used to be a
reporter, and I was based in China. I went to North Korea twice, in 1988 and the
early 1990s. I can feel it and understand exactly what you are saying.
I will ask some questions later, but I would like to open the
floor up to our senators here. We really want to thank Senator Yonah Martin for
suggesting that we have this inquiry. We will certainly have a very public
report of your testimony and other testimony before us.
Senator Martin: Thank you, Hyeonseo Lee, for your
compelling testimony. Seeing you and hearing you talk about life in North Korea
is kind of emotional for me personally because my father was born in North Korea
before the war, so before Korea was divided. Talking about life in North Korea
that is such a contrast to the rest of the world and especially to South Korea
today, I think about the family he left behind that he never saw again, that I
have never known. Seeing you and hearing from you feels like a closer connection
to my own part of the family that I have never known. Thank you for your courage
and for your testimony today.
You talked about changing your name because of the risk of
punishment and danger to your family. Can you talk a bit more about what would
have happened if you were caught or accused? What happens to the family?
Ms. Lee: I was caught in 2000, which is quite early,
because I left North Korea earlier than anyone at the time. I thought if I was
caught, after repatriation to North Korea, I would be sentenced to public
execution, not prison camp. In that situation, I believe that was the biggest
betrayal for the North Korean government.
Later, after that, I realized that it actually depends on where
you are. If the defectors were caught in China, they would be put into a
detention centre and be tortured or spend several months in prison, but not sent
to political prison camps or sentenced to public execution. Those defectors who
are caught while trying to go to South Korea using the border with China or
through Laos or Thailand, those people who are deported to China, the first step
is political prison camp. Sometimes they would be killed, made into examples in
At the time, because my family reported to the government after I
was missing — I was kind of an accidental defector. I just wanted to see the
real world with my own eyes. I didn't know that we were living in grey and that
a bigger world existed the moment I crossed the border. I was thinking that I
would go back because of my family. The family I love was living in North Korea.
That was in my hometown. That is all I believed.
However, after I left the country, my family had to report to the
government that I was a missing child. Otherwise, they couldn't escape the
moment. That is why if I was repatriated to North Korea, then it proved that I
did escape from North Korea rather than being a missing child.
When I was caught, they got my real name and said someone
reported me to the police station. I was interrogated by around 30 policemen in
a police station in China at the time. Because of that whole experience, it was
a miracle that I was released. At that time, more than 90 per cent of defectors
had no chance to escape the moment, but because I studied hard for two years to
learn Chinese, they couldn't believe that I was actually a North Korean defector
because of my pronunciation and reading the paper every day.
Because of the experience after being released from the police
station, whenever I moved between China and the workplaces, I made a lot of
names for myself to make people confused. That is why I became The Girl with
Senator Martin: With regard to not your situation but
maybe other defectors, will the families be punished? Will they suffer if they
are connected to a defector?
Ms. Lee: Yes.
Senator Martin: Could you explain a bit more about what
happens to the families?
Ms. Lee: Yes. First, my family situation — actually, many
people in the outside world are curious about how your family can survive
without being sent to prison while you are missing. However, it depends on who
you are. If I was a really high ranking official, then there is no doubt that
three generations of family would be removed to a political prison camp.
My situation is I was 17 when I was living in North Korea, so my
guilt was less compared to others at the time. My mom was living in a prison
until the moment she escaped the country. She had a nice job in North Korea at
the time, but the North Korean agents, the regime for all spies, were in her
workplace and at her neighbours. Everyone was spying on them every single
moment, from the time my mom left the house.
Six years later, someone who my mom thought was her best friend
told my mom one day, “For the past six years, I have been spying on you. I had
to report every day to the North Korean agents what you did and where you went.
I feel tired because I know you are a nice woman,” so she said she would quit
that job. That is why my mom also feared the government, and then she created a
company. That is why when my family escaped North Korea, they had to leave
everything, so that the neighbours didn't find out they were escaping the
The situation of other defectors is like my family. They are
severely watched, but it depends on the case. Some families are removed to the
countryside where it is extremely difficult to survive, like mountainous areas.
My family was on the list every year from Pyongyang because every year
government officials came to check. We were on the list every year, and we gave
a lot of bribes to the government people so they would remove our names from the
list. But if you have no money, then you are removed to the mountainous areas,
which means you will die there. That is the standard situation right now.
The other real situation is if they find out that their family
members are not in China but living in South Korea, then the punishment is
hugely different. The family members are sent to a political prison camp. My
defector friends in South Korea one day suddenly lost all contact with their
family members. They knew that some of them were sent to prison camps. Those are
the facts that we know right now.
The Chair: Thank you very much. We have lots of questions
for you. We are very curious.
Senator Hubley: Thank you very much, Ms. Lee, for being
with us today.
I had a moment this morning, and I watched your video, as well. I
certainly was moved by the tremendous journey you have taken for your freedom.
Within North Korea, are there safe houses? Is there an
underground working to help people who are defecting, or is it all left to
individuals? I know that you helped your family escape, and I thought that was
almost an impossible task. How were you able to do that?
Ms. Lee: There are no underground houses or someone giving
this kind of help. That is impossible. We are doing it just with our abilities.
For example, we had to escape, but in my situation, I was naive. I thought if I
crossed the border, I can just see the bigger world and then come back.
But for other defectors' cases, they escaped for hunger or
freedom, because these days there is more than hunger, but they have to have
brokers. Without brokers, they don't know where to go. However, those brokers
are usually bad people. We need those people; without brokers, the defectors,
after crossing the border, don't know where to go. But at the same time, there
are not many good brokers, and they are maybe selling the defectors, as I said,
as sex slaves or as bribes. That is why most female defectors are suffering in
this kind of situation.
With the prices now, this has become a business, helping
defectors out of the country. Even inside North Korea, we can't trust anyone. In
the past, if we paid the border guards in North Korea, then because of the
money, they would allow us to leave the country. But right now, in the Kim
Jong-un regime, he is smart. He ordered the border guards to take the money but,
at the same time, to report it, and they would be promoted in the military, so
there are double benefits for them. That is why even these days, we are paying
huge amounts of money, but we have no guarantee that we will not be trapped. We
have to risk it, because there is no 100-per-cent guarantee of anything. We have
to risk our lives.
Senator Nancy Ruth: Thank you for being here. Did I
understand you to say that most of the refugees crossing the border were women?
Ms. Lee: Yes. About 70 to 80 per cent are women.
Senator Nancy Ruth: What is the situation in North Korea
that makes these challenges for women so difficult that they wish to escape?
Ms. Lee: Because North Korea is such a hierarchical
society, they treat women unequally. A woman's position is always lower than
that of a man. Men are allowed to work in the state-run factories or companies,
but the women had to stay at home and support their husbands and their kids.
That was the woman's job. The woman has no voice. That is why there is a lot of
domestic violence against women.
After the famine started, the man still has to go to work in the
company; otherwise, there will be punishment. They will be sent to detention
centres for a few months. Men had to work even after they stopped the public
distribution system. Women had to go either to the black market or whatever;
they had to do something to support their families. Then they started earning
money, either in the black market or in the markets. Then more women had a bit
more freedom than men because of that, and then they started to leave to China
to support their families, because they believed that in China they could earn a
little money and support their families. That is the reason why, even today, 70
to 80 per cent are female.
Senator Nancy Ruth: Help me understand. You have asked us
to put pressure on China to not return the refugees to North Korea. You have
said that many of these women end up at as sex slaves and are sold for as little
as $80 per woman. If they are available for sex slaves — I am trying to get my
head around it. These women seem to be useful to China when they cross the
border. They either will work or act as wives to old men or be sex slaves. Why
is China sending them back? I may not be asking the right question, but I need
to understand it a bit more.
Ms. Lee: I do understand your question. I never thought it
would be a benefit for China. As I said in my speech, the Chinese government — I
was also a victim at the time. I lived in China until 2008 before seeking asylum
to South Korea.
Every two or three months in a year, they have a huge search for
North Korean defectors nationwide. Every time, we had to escape so that we would
not be caught. Some of my friends were even caught at night when they were
sleeping and Chinese policeman were knocking at the door, randomly checking ID
cards. Defectors don't have ID cards, and the police will find out they are
defectors and, in the middle of the night, they are repatriated to North Korea.
Even then, those women defectors are not treated well, the North
Korean women and Chinese men when they are married. They have babies, right?
They don't even treat babies well. They do not provide the babies with any ID
cards. So when they are repatriating their mothers to North Korea, at least they
are not repatriating the babies. They let them stay in China but without ID
cards. That is the fact for the Chinese government.
I think it is beneficial, because many Chinese men have no
ability to marry right now, so they have North Korean female defectors. Because
of the alliance between China and North Korea, I think that is the only answer —
Senator Nancy Ruth: Can you say that again?
Ms. Lee: Because of the alliance between North Korea and
China. They are allies. Always we were taught that we were tied with blood
relations — brothers and sisters like that.
Senator Nancy Ruth: That is a lot to think about.
Ms. Lee: I don't know if that is the right answer.
Senator Nancy Ruth: That is interesting, because China
needs women to continue its population. It is an interesting conundrum.
Ms. Lee: No, China does not want to increase the
population. Not long ago, they removed the one-child policy.
The Chair: We have a lot more questions dealing with the
United Nations, which I will ask you later.
Senator Ngo: Thank you, Ms. Lee, for your presentation.
How are the North Korean defectors being treated and welcomed to
South Korea? I heard that the North Korean people who moved to South Korea have
difficulty integrating into the democratic society. They face language and
employment barriers — everything. Could you tell us what their difficulties are,
and why is it hard for them to integrate into the democratic society of South
Ms. Lee: Right now, the North Korean defector suicide rate
in South Korea is higher than that of South Koreans. That is shocking to me,
because we know, as defectors, that the way to come to South Korea is not easy.
We had to risk everything; we had to leave everything behind. Some people were
even repatriated several times from China back to North Korea, where they
suffered and were tortured and imprisoned. Even then, they came to South Korea.
But some people end up committing suicide.
When I heard that, I was hurt. I couldn't understand why they
were suffering more difficulties in their lives, but they are ending here. I
think they have hope, at least in China, when they are suffering torture and
everything, that once they go to South Korea, everything will be okay. It will
be fine. That's all they believed, I guess. But once they arrived in South
Korea, they realized the reality is different. It's so cold to them because,
certainly, the system in North Korea is different.
We were living in the communist system, and the economy is hugely
different compared to South Korea. Suddenly, one day, when they come to South
Korea, with the capitalism system, they see there is a lot of freedom. People
like North Koreans who never tasted freedom don't even know how to enjoy the
freedom because, if there is too much freedom, we don't know where to go. There
is a lot of anxiety, in fact, produced. That is another big reason.
Then, at the same time, it's very shocking that defectors are
treated more as foreigners than any foreigners living in Korea, because we are
like outsiders. There is discrimination because of the pronunciation, language
difference, everything, so people were pressured. We North Korean defectors
suffered a lot in China, but we do understand. That's not my country. It's
China. Because we were born in the wrong country, that's why we are suffering;
we accept it.
When we arrive in the motherland in South Korea, people say it's
hard to accept the reality. Some people are even saying that it's easier to get
acceptance in other countries, rather than living in South Korea. That's why
they were leaving for Canada or America, U.K. or other countries to have a
better life, to escape the discrimination. That's the fact.
But I don't only want to say the negative things. I also
suffered, and I was angry in that situation. Later, I got the answer myself. We
need more time. Because we have been separated for so long, for 70 years, we
became nobody to them. We were a completely forgotten people to the South Korean
people, so we need more time to get to know each other.
Right now, many North Korean defectors, including me, are willing
to share their stories in the media with the world, and then some South Koreans
started crying with us because now that they knew our tragedy and how it was
difficult to come to South Korea. They are crying with us, and some of them are
really behind us. Secretly, they are supporting us, not publicly but in terms of
whatever they can do, they do. Why is there is a lot of discrimination? It is
egotistical. I think this is changing right now. I hope in the future to have
better treatment for North Korean defectors.
Senator Ngo: You mentioned very interesting information.
However, you said North Korea citizens are residing in Canada and so on. North
Koreans citizens residing in Canada are considered citizens of South Korea, and
based on that policy, they do not need the condition prescribed by the United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. How do we get out of that situation?
What do we do to have those citizens of North Korea become citizens of South
Korea and then come to Canada? Because you are not qualified, under the United
Nations, as refugees.
Ms. Lee: Thank you for asking me this. I know this is a
really sensitive topic for me. As a North Korean defector, I understand the
Canadian government's situation, and they have to follow the rules. For me, as a
North Korean defector, when they came to South Korea, they don't know that they
had the right to choose to go to other countries besides South Korea and
America. In third countries, there is shelter to seek asylum to America or South
Korea. Those are the two options. To go to America is such a difficulty. They
have to wait one or two years, and then people are just exhausted with the
waiting in third countries like Thailand. Then they just give up, and then they
go to South Korea.
Living in South Korea, they have no choice. It's the motherland.
Then they came here. I like to live in South Korea, but some people have
different minds. Because of the discrimination, they want to leave for another
country. I think North Korean defectors have to have the right to choose where
they want to live after they've found freedom, after they've found real freedom
in South Korea. I know this is a really sensitive topic. I have also heard of
many North Korean defectors who were exiled from Canada not long ago, so it is a
big issue here. I hope that North Koreans defectors can live where they want to
The Chair: Thank you very much. We will continue. That's a
very important point for our report, and no doubt the Canadian government will
be listening to what we have to say about this issue.
Ms. Lee, the 2104 report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human
Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea recommended the creation
of an ad hoc tribunal by the United Nations, and, also, the UN Security Council
suggested that the International Criminal Court ensure that those responsible
for crimes against humanity in North Korea are held accountable. I would assume
you would support this approach. Has there been any progress on this? This seems
to be moving at a glacial speed.
Ms. Lee: We all know that is a really historic moment
because North Koreans, people living inside the prisons in North Korea and
defectors like us, have suffered from 20 years ago, and our story was always
buried. Nobody really paid attention. I'm so glad that, in these years, we have
made a lot of progress. In 2014, we made the COI report. It's really amazing for
North Korean defectors. We saw many people cry when we saw the reports.
I'm just worried that it stays as paper and does nothing. It's
just floating in the UN or something. We believe we need more real action. We
know that that main key is China, but China seems unwilling to do anything. This
is the big problem. I hope the big countries, different countries, can pressure
China to let them do the right things. If we do our best, there is nothing
The Chair: Are there certain types of human rights
concerns in the North Korean context that deserve particular attention or are
not as well known that we should be paying attention to? Are there certain types
of human rights concerns in the North Korean context that deserve more attention
or that we just don't really know about? I know you've described them in your
book and so on, but I think there are others.
Ms. Lee: We certainly didn't know what human rights were.
We don't have those kinds of words; we never learnt. We also have freedom words
in North Korea, shockingly, but we are not allowed to use the words unless it's
privately. We have to use the context to use with our dictator. We were
suffering, but we didn't know that's against humanity and everything. We thought
the people in the outside world were suffering more than us. Still we thought
that that was the happiest moment. We were brainwashed. The regime told us that,
in our divided country, in South Korea, America was colonizing South Korea and
executing South Korean people even today and that there were many starving
people in the street dying there. That's what we learnt. So we were happy
because we thought life in North Korea was amazing.
What I wanted to mention is the political prison camps or public
executions. That's the main tool to make people scared, make people live in
fear. Not only are we loyal to the regime with our hearts, but we are also loyal
to the regime with fear because we grew up with that kind of situation.
The people who are removed to the political prison camp are not
the big criminals. My friend's father simply said to his best friend, “This
system is unfair.” He only said the words. He never criticized the dear leader,
the name, nothing. But because of that, he was removed to political prison camp.
There are more than 100,000 prisoners living in prison camps, so
I think the world has to pay attention to removal of the prison camps and the
public execution system in North Korea. I don't know how we can make it happen,
but those are the urgent things to do to make things change in North Korea.
The Chair: Senator Martin will have questions on the
second round, but I would like to get up to date from you and your perspective
living in Seoul: There is a Canadian minister or pastor who is in one of those
camps that you are describing. I think it was 17 years of hard labour. Also
recently, there is an American student, and you would see him on television
here. It was incredibly sad to watch that.
Do they have a chance to get out of these prisons? Will quiet
diplomacy from the Canadian and American governments work for these two
gentlemen? What is the view? Are people talking about these issues in South
Ms. Lee: That's a huge issue. It's a big issue. At least
we know the American government is doing its best to protect its citizens.
That's why there are a lot of Americans — either they made a mistake or they did
it on purpose, to write a book, whatever, and they make a lot of issues.
I was the one who was thrown against the tourism system the most.
That's what the regime wants. Unless there are benefits for them, they're not
agreed with anything, and then they allowed a lot of foreign tourists to come
into North Korea. Even the regime says, “What's the guilty from the Canadian
pastor or the American students?” We heard what the problem they made was, but
who knows? We don't know the facts. Maybe the North Korean regime is lying to —
they are always using that as the communication card in foreign policy. We know
that. So that why people have to stop going to North Korea.
Another reason I was strongly against foreign tourists is because
I was seriously brainwashed. We grew up with the foreign tourists all the time
in North Korea, because we only had one TV channel in North Korea, and that's a
propaganda TV channel. Every day, they are showing in Pyongyang how many foreign
tourists are visiting North Korea, and they are paying their respects to our
dear leader and to going to statutes and giving flowers. I didn't know that they
were forced into doing it. We thought people were paying respect with their
hearts. We thought people even respected our dear leader and they fly all the
way to North Korea, so our dear leader must be the number-one most respected
human being on the planet, like the regime told us. That works even today. That
the why I hate the foreign tourist system in North Korea. They have to stop
The Chair: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Senator Martin: Going back to a comment you made earlier,
you said once defectors escape and go to a third country like Thailand, they
think their choices are, at the moment, the United States or South Korea, where
they get citizenship. But in the United States, it's a long process. So in those
detention centres, defectors presently do not think of Canada because there is
not a program or something in place for them.
But if Canada were one of the options, is it an attractive
country to defectors? What do you know about Canada, and why should Canada be
one of those options? I'm curious if that's a program we should be considering
Ms. Lee: We would be very grateful if the Canadian
government would make a program in Thailand. I believe that if they reduced the
terms to within one year that they can arrive in Canada, I believe so many North
Korean people would be willing to go to Canada.
As North Koreans, we don't know the difference between America
and Canada. By looks, they all look like Americans, because we are always taught
the history about Americans, so all white people look like “American bastards,”
because we learned that they are “American bastards” in North Korea. So they
can't verify what the difference is between America and Canada. But if in the
detention centre in Thailand they learned the differences between America and
Canada, then I believe many people would be willing to come to Canada.
These days, the defectors are not like in the past. They have
many family members in South Korea, so they are hearing what's going on. That's
why they at least know which way of seeking asylum is the best option for them.
It's not a big problem, as long as the Canadian government makes the program in
Senator Martin: One more question: You said there is one
television station — propaganda — but you just mentioned that there is
communication with family. Would you talk a little bit about what kind of
information goes back and forth and how that happens?
Ms. Lee: It's illegal. In North Korea, we do all illegal
things. Without doing it, it's impossible. People have been shocked that we can
communicate with family members inside North Korea. I was in contact with my
family from the early 2000s from China. I sent Chinese cell phones illegally
through the border, and then people living next to the border with China can
receive Chinese cell phone signals. We are not calling to North Korea; we are
calling to China near the border area, so they are receiving the signals. That's
how we have phone calls.
Right now, we listen to all the news about North Korea every day
from all the media. That's all from foreign-sourced systems. The system is huge.
It's almost impossible to block the system. They even have a cell phone
detection machine to detect cell phone activities in the border area and then
distract the signals. It's really difficult. These days it's more difficult to
make a phone call with family members. In less than one minute, we have to end
the phone call, but it's the only source we can use to make a phone call.
The people living in Pyongyang or not near the border areas, they
come to the border area to make phone calls to their family members who escaped
to either China or South Korea.
This will change the future. It's already started, not only
foreign media, outside TV, but this is the main function.
Senator Ngo: I want to follow up on the questions asked by
Senator Martin. You mentioned that the North Korean defectors can come to
Thailand. First, are those North Korean defectors, once they arrive in Bangkok,
Thailand, considered to be refugees by the Thai government? Second, will they be
arrested and put into detention camps? Third, are they registered with the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, asking for refugee status?
Ms. Lee: Actually, Thailand is the only country in the
region protecting North Korean defectors. In 2009, when my family was caught in
Laos, where they suffered through a prison period in Laos, the Laos government
told me that I was lucky, because the Laos government is not repatriating North
Korean defectors back to China after receiving criticism from the international
community. So right now, at least we are not repatriating them to China, but
they have to suffer in prison if they don't pay fines or fees. That was the fact
at the time, but we know that there were nine children after 2011 who were
repatriated to China and then back to North Korea from Laos. So when I see the
news, I feel relieved that my family, at the time, didn't have that problem.
But two years later, the Laos government started again. Right
now, the Laos government signed secret contracts with North Korea. They are
again sending North Korean defectors back to China.
Vietnam is continuously sending back North Korean defectors.
So Thailand is the only country doing good work with the South
Korean embassies in Thailand. They are sending them where they want to be. There
are immigration centres in Thailand, and they are staying a short time, right
now — just two months — and then they will be able to send them where they want
to go. That's why I feel thankful for the Thai government.
Senator Ngo: You didn't answer the questions. Are those
North Korean defectors in Thailand — you said after two months, they can choose
where they go. But do they have to register with the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees as refuges so that the third country can take them?
Ms. Lee: I don't know about that process, because I didn't
come to Thailand. That was not my route. I don't know about that. As far as I
know, there is no restoration for defectors. We are refugees, but we are treated
differently than refugees, because refugees have a place to go, like South
Korea — even today. I never heard that they have the different registration in
The Chair: Thank you very much for that. Our next panel
should have more answers to that question as well.
We just have a few minutes left, Ms. Lee, but I do have one
question for you: Do you see unification of North Korea and South Korea as a
likely scenario, ever?
Ms. Lee: Reunification is my hope and dream. It is the
dream of my mom and the dream of all North Korean defectors. But as we know, it
is getting difficult. After the Kim Jong-un regime changed, they are going more
In the past, I didn't have any hope, but these days I do have a
little hope. The difference is that the North Korean people were seriously
brainwashed for 17 years, but now people are slowly awakening. But that doesn't
mean we can hope that they can make a demonstration against the regime publicly.
It's absolutely impossible in North Korea, because the dictator Kim has too much
power, so losing the Kim family completely would be the biggest change in North
Korea. From history, we know that before we remove the dictator, the people
around the dictator, in his circle, always make the change.
So I hope the international communities support those people who
have the possibility to bring change in North Korea, besides the Kim family. It
should happen all at the same time.
Maybe, “yes.” It's difficult to make the reunification, but who
knows? Inside North Korea, the situation is more unstable than ever, so maybe we
can have reunification more quickly than we expected. But, as we know, in terms
of North Korean reunification, it's hard to guess.
The Chair: Ms. Lee, we want to thank you for this
incredible journey and this one hour of showing us and telling us your personal
point of view and experiences. You're a very courageous person. Do you have
anything else you would like to add before we sign off with you?
Ms. Lee: I only want to mention two things that I
mentioned during the one-hour session. I know it's tough, but please accept
North Korean refugees who are already in Canada, seeking asylum in Canada. I
hope they have a right to choose the place where they want to live.
Second, I hope the Canadian government will cooperate with other
countries internationally. North Korean defectors have no power. We have to rely
on countries like you to make a change for us and to be our voice in the
international community. That's all I want to say.
The Chair: Thank you so much. The only thing that
separates us is an ocean, so we are close with you. I understand it's 1:30 in
the morning. I hope you can rest well after speaking with us. You have given us
a great deal of insight.
Ms. Lee: Thank you for your time.
The Chair: Senators, I have to go to another event, in my
work, but Senator Ngo has graciously agreed to take the chair for the remainder
of the meeting when others will give us more insight into the situation of North
Senator Thanh Hai Ngo (Acting Chair) in the chair.
The Acting Chair: Good afternoon. For our second panel, we
have here today in Ottawa, from the Joseon Institute, Mr. Adrian Hong,
President; and from HanVoice, Mr. Jack Kim, Special Advisor.
Adrian Hong is the President of the Joseon Institute, which
conducts research and planning in preparation for political change in the Korean
peninsula. He is also the cofounder of Liberty in North Korea, an
organization that is based in California and that assists North Koreans to leave
the country, provides resettlement assistance and advocates with respect to the
situation faced by the North Korean people. In 2006, he was in prison in China
for helping North Koreans escape the country.
Mr. Jack Kim is a lawyer and manager of Fragomen Worldwide,
a firm that provides legal advice regarding immigration matters. Previously, he
was a CBSA hearing officer. He is also a founder of HanVoice, a Canadian
organization that advocates for improved human rights in North Korea.
I believe that Mr. Hong will begin with his opening remarks,
followed by Mr. Kim.
Adrian Hong, President, Joseon Institute: Thank you. I am
grateful to the members of this committee for your ongoing advocacy for the
protection of human rights around the world and today, in particular, your
attention to one of the world's worst concentrations of mass atrocities in
The condition of human rights in North Korea has been well-documented
by thousands of survivors and escapees and corroborated by satellite imagery.
Several nations around the world have pursued measures to address the situation
of North Korean human rights and refugee protection. The United States, Japan
and South Korea — South Korea after 11 years — each have passed their own
version of the North Korea human rights act. These acts have collectively
established policies for the acceptance of refugees to their respective
jurisdictions, the establishment of ambassador-level representatives
coordinating policies —
The Acting Chair: Mr. Hong, would you please slow down a
little bit because we have the translation into French as well.
Mr. Hong: I will. I apologize, translators.
These acts have collectively established policies for the
acceptance of refugees to their respective jurisdictions, the establishment of
ambassador-level representatives coordinating policies on North Korean human
rights, funding to support defector groups and human rights advocacy
organizations, the creation of databases on North Korean human rights violations
and provisions to try to ensure that humanitarian assistance to North Korea is
not diverted for unintended use.
Broadly speaking, while the acts have helped to clarify the
status of refugees fleeing from the North and helped to raise awareness of
atrocities in the country, they have had little to no effect on the condition of
human rights on the ground inside North Korea.
The 2004 North Korean Human Rights Act in the United
States, for example, mandated that the United States government and, accordingly,
its embassies and consulates abroad work to protect and process North Korean
refugees for resettlement to the United States. In December 2006, I and two
colleagues in China took the law at face value and escorted six North Korean
refugees — two teenage orphans and four women — several of whom had relatives in
the United States and North Korea. We took them to seek protection from the
United States consulate in Shenyang, China, which is in the Northeast. We were
turned away by American officials while 100 feet away from the front gates of
the consulate and subsequently arrested by Chinese authorities while we tried to
seek refuge in Beijing. My team and I were deported after 10 days in prison, and
the refugees, thankfully, were ultimately released, months later, by Chinese
authorities, in a singular and unprecedented move, to South Korea. We were
incredibly fortunate not to have the refugees repatriated to North Korea where
they would have faced severe punishment, torture or death.
Other provisions of the American act authorize over $20 million
in funding in support of refugee programs, democracy promotional activities and
defector organizations, the bulk of which was never appropriated. All of this
together showed either a lack of will or ability and made the American law
effectively a paper tiger. There are many lessons Canada can learn from the 12
years since that original act was made into law.
More broadly, the United States, the Republic of Korea and other
stakeholders have sought to use dialogue and engagement on human rights issues
as a key approach, in hopes that Pyongyang might see the light and change their
ways. Such an approach will never work. North Korea is not a normal nation with
a government seeking to serve and protect its citizens. It is a brutal
totalitarian regime, ruled by a royal family and a class of vassals, both in
tenuous concert with one another. It does not care for the welfare of its
people. It will not be motivated by promises of wealth or prosperity or offers
of political legitimacy. The regime seeks only survival and the continued
domination and exploitation of its people.
North Korea today is presently under unprecedented internal and
external pressure. It is on the cusp of dramatic and sudden change. Whether such
transformation comes by reform or evolution, the challenges North Korea will
face are more or less the same. We have seen recently in Iraq and Libya what
happens without adequate preparation and without international mentorship and
how young people without options can become radicalized. There is a great deal
Canada can do now in furtherance of and preparation for that imminent change in
North Korea. Canada already has a head start under the controlled-engagement
policy adopted as of October 2010.
The first and simplest effort is to streamline a process for
legitimate North Korean refugees all over the world to seek protection and
resettlement in Canada. While refugees are only symptoms of a failed system,
they will serve as a bridge between North Korea and the 21st century, and they
are in need of extraordinary humanitarian protection. Given the extreme
difficulties North Koreans face in fleeing their country and then subsequently
fleeing China or Russia, their numbers will not be significant.
Beyond addressing the symptoms, Canada is well-positioned and has
unique strengths that can help to transform North Korea. Canada has a long and
robust history of peacekeeping and strengthening civilian institutions, both
areas a changing North Korea will need to develop.
North Korea will also need to build a transparent police force
and move away from a legacy of state surveillance and arbitrary detention and
also transition to an apolitical military. Canada does not bear the geopolitical
baggage that North Korea's neighbouring countries have and can more robustly
engage in helping North Korea toward a better future without being accused or
suspected of subversive intentions. For example, Canada's Charter of Rights and
Freedoms has been lauded by international experts as an ideal model for many
countries seeking inspiration in establishing prudent and liberty-minded
Such efforts can build capacity and help North Korea and East
Asia move toward a brighter future, no matter how and when that comes about
Canada has also been at the forefront of advocacy for the
responsibility to protect, which is a pioneering legal concept that has laid the
groundwork for more recent efforts at the United Nations to call for
accountability on human rights in North Korea.
In a similar spirit, Canada could designate that any future
diplomatic engagements with North Korea, between Ottawa and Pyongyang, be
structured so that progress on security, the economy or economic matters and
human rights only move forward collectively, not separately in silos. Canada
could also spearhead an international contact group for the protection of North
Korean refugees and the promotion of human rights' activities.
The Government of North Korea is a perpetrator of mass atrocities
that also sells counterfeit currency, arms, nuclear weapons and missile
technologies, methamphetamines and slave labour around the world. The problems
of North Korea are not contained within its borders. It is unfathomable that,
despite the apparent technological and cultural progress our world has
collectively attained, we still have children enslaved as political prisoners on
this planet today.
What the world has tried so far in other countries has not
worked. It is my hope that Canada can take the lead on more effective ways and
strategies to stand for these people.
Thank you for the privilege of addressing you today and for your
thoughtful exploration of this issue. We look forward to your questions.
Jack Kim, Special Advisor, HanVoice: Good afternoon,
ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for the opportunity to speak before you today. I
am an immigration lawyer with Fragomen (Canada) Co., which is the Toronto
office of Fragomen Worldwide. It is the world's leading provider of immigration
I would be remiss to state that the views stated here are my own
as well as the organization HanVoice, and not of Fragomen Worldwide, so I start
with that disclaimer, since I am a lawyer.
As you have heard this morning from one of my dear friends,
Hyeonseo Lee, the plight of the North Korean people is one that is exceptional
and unique. It is fortunately one that is not replicated in any other country,
society or community in this world.
The exceptional nature of this crisis has been increasingly
acknowledged globally, starting with the advocacy of a small group of activists
like Adrian. The plight of the North Korean people has not only been
acknowledged by the United Nations through its groundbreaking commission of
inquiry report released in 2014, but it has been acknowledged and enshrined in
law by legislators in countries such as the United States, Japan and, most
recently, South Korea.
Canada itself has had a vocal response to the crisis. From a
governmental level, the Canadian government has continuously pressed the issue
of North Korean human rights and refugees in multilateral forums such as the
United Nations and the inter-parliamentary committee for North Korean refugees.
Civil society has also jumped in, as Canada's non-governmental organizations
have developed a strong identity throughout the global human rights community as
salient actors on this issue.
As strong as our response may be, North Korea continues to be
what it is. The question we must ask ourselves is: What more can we do? In this
vein, the overarching message I would like to leave with you today is that we
must engage with North Korea to solve this problem. Yes, it sometimes would
include engagement with the government, if feasible, but in principle we must
engage directly with the North Korean people. How do we do that?
There are three areas where we can help, which are largely in
agreement with what our American friends have also enshrined in the legislation
they have passed. They include assisting refugees, helping non-profits in this
area and keeping a record of what has happened for posterity.
The first is with refugees. North Korean refugees, as we have
heard today, face a curious legal situation if they leave their home country. By
the South Korean constitution, they are automatically considered citizens of
South Korea. In itself, that may not be a bad thing, but there are situations
where North Koreans who do escape North Korea do not wish to settle in South
Korea for security concerns for their families back home, for instance, or they
cannot escape to South Korea due to the escape route they have taken. For
instance, if a North Korean athlete wishes to defect while they're in Canada, do
we send them back to where they came from? In these cases, even if we wanted to,
in Canada, due to this legality, the Canadian government could not designate
such North Koreans as government-assisted refugees, nor could we individually
sponsor North Korean refugees from places like Thailand, for instance.
Certainly, Canada would and should not close its doors to North
Korean refugees due to legal technicalities, as even our neighbours in the
United States have used such language in their own version of their legislation
to fix this situation. Certainly, a short-term, temporary policy option and
solution that the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship can use to
ameliorate this issue is section 25(2) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection
Act, but a more permanent solution to this quandary may be to enshrine this
exception in legislation.
The second action item we can take forward would be to support
Canadian nongovernmental organizations that are already “on the ground” when it
comes to activities that directly help the North Korean people. Although from a
representative of one of those organizations, that may sound incredibly self-serving,
there are very good reasons that we recommend this. The first is that there are
many things that the Government of Canada cannot simply be part of. For
instance, facilitating the distribution of USB keys, which are full of the
Korean version of Wikipedia in places like North Korea can be an activity that
we can do as an organization, but it cannot be something that Global Affairs
Canada can participate in. Furthermore, these organizations over the past decade
have built inroads and trust with the North Korean people both inside North
Korea as well as outside the country. Why would Canada not leverage these
relationships that these organizations have built? The issue is that unlike the
United States where such programs are housed in such institutions as the State
Department or the National Endowment for Democracy, in Canada, we currently do
not have a similar vehicle to support NGOs that do good work in this sphere.
Action by policy can certainly address this, but a legislative framework can
give cover to ministers to fully implement such programs in the future.
Finally, we recommend that a regular report be compiled by the
relevant ministers involved on a regular basis. The importance of these types of
reports is underscored by activities such as this very study that you are
undertaking. Such studies and reports become part of the official Canadian
public record. On record, they can be used not only to educate our own public
about this issue but also help to hold those who perpetrate human rights
atrocities against the North Korean people to account. At this point in time,
there is nothing compelling the government to issue such a report, but as with
the State Department report that is issued on a regular basis, a Canadian
version of the report can be quite useful in serving as a calibrating benchmark
for our efforts in the future.
Our Westminster system of government puts heavy emphasis on
ministerial discretion and the ability for each individual minister to take
forward action via policy. At the same time, you can see that there are certain
areas regarding this issue where a legislative option may put in place a more
permanent resolution to issues of a legal nature, especially regarding the
status of North Korean refugees, which we have already heard about. We would
recommend that both policy and legislation be kept open as options to address
the exceptional crisis that has befallen the North Korean people.
Thank you very much. I look forward to any questions you may
The Acting Chair: Thank you very much for your
presentations. I have a list here of senators who wish to ask you questions, and
I will start with Senator Martin.
Senator Martin: I will try to bridge between the previous
witness and some of the remarks that both of you have made.
Thank you so much for being here. I would like to talk about
Thailand and the detention centre that Hyeonseo Lee talked about. For North
Koreans who safely arrive in Thailand, the choices that they have before them
are currently South Korea, which is within two months, and the United States,
which could take upwards of a year or more.
Could you talk about the importance of such a program and why
Canada should potentially consider being a third option? If we should do that,
the question is: Why should Canada be that third option? There are so many needs
in the world and there are other refugees that come from very dire situations.
We heard from Hyeonseo Lee, but what makes the North Korean defectors a unique
group, and why should Canada consider such a group? Should this potential third
option for a place like Thailand be something that we could be doing? That
question would be to both of you.
Mr. Kim: A third option that Canada could open would be
incredibly important to North Korean refugees. At this point in time, due to the
legalities involved that I described, right now, even if we wanted to, we
couldn't bring any North Korean refugees from Thailand, except if there was some
kind of intervention from the minister under a temporary public policy, which is
not unprecedented. For instance, there is such temporary public policy in cases,
for instance, for Tibetans in India or for Vietnamese people in places like
Thailand or, for instance, in the Philippines as well. There is precedent to do
To open such a program would not only send a message back to
North Korea saying that Canada is interested, Canada is involved and Canada
wants to see a change in the situation, but it would also reverberate across the
world by stating that if Canada can do it, why can't countries such as the
United Kingdom, France or other places in the world do that? It creates a
strategic opening for others countries to be able to do the same thing.
One of the things that we like to go back to — and I am sure
that, for some of the people in this committee, it is a personal thing — is the
Vietnamese boat people situation. In the 1970s, Canada jumped in and decided to
take on a fraction of the people who were escaping in that situation. That is
the same thing that can happen in the case of North Korean refugees.
The most important thing is that if we do this now, when we don't
have this huge influx of refugees, such as in the Syrian case, for example, then
we can start planning and be able to get some breathing room when it comes to
it. For instance, in Canada there is a strong Korean-Canadian community that can
support such North Korean refugees when they come here. It allows some
preplanning ahead. For instance, I know that the government was, to their
benefit and credit, really putting in the effort to settle the Syrian refugees.
It was a bit of a monumental task to do that.
Wwith the North Korean refugee crisis, we would have a bit of
luxury to be able to create these institutions. We do that in case North Korea
does blow up, because there is some volatility when it comes to the North Korean
regime. A lot of people on the ground believe that North Korea may be coming to
some sort of fork in the road when it comes to its own existential nature.
The importance of being able to take in North Korean refugees
from places like Thailand is not only important because of the exceptional
situation but due to the fact that we may have to do that at some point in time
in the future.
Senator Martin: May I ask a different question to Adrian?
You mentioned there is imminent change. Hyeonseo even talked about that there is
change in the air, and Jack is saying that could happen. Could you talk about
the current tension of the situation, from your analysis? Is the change sooner
or later? And this kind of a program — the sooner we do it, it prepares us for
what might be inevitable. I may be putting words into your mouth, but I am
curious about the timing. What sort of situation have you noted?
Mr. Hong: It is a bit of a complex question and answer.
The short version: I would argue that North Korea is on the cusp, not of
systemic, incremental change, but of dramatic, fundamental upheaval. If I were
aggressive, I would say “this year” and if not, I would say in the next two or
three at the most.
That is due to a number of reasons, including the external
pressures and the unanimity of other countries outside of North Korea.
Previously, you would see sanctions from the U.S., South Korea or Japan, but
Russia would not play ball, for example. But in the last two months, because of
North Korea's aggressive proliferation and nuclear testing activities — and they
are now on the cusp of doing another nuclear test, and they launched a dozen
missiles in the last month — even China and Russia have come on board with
sanctions. You are seeing the North Korean regime squeezed to an unprecedented
level, and the populous are no longer so naive to believe that all their
problems are because of those “evil” Americans. It's becoming quite clear that
the regime itself has a lot to do with it.
Also, defectors have left North Korea and been outside of the
country for almost two decades, and in large numbers. They are not just sitting
around. Many have left their family members behind, many have left concentration
camps and many of them feel significant survivors' guilt. You saw a
representative speak today before you — one who has the burden to do something
for their people. These individuals will not sit around.
Due to those reasons, and others that I probably would not speak
about in a public forum, I would bet that a fundamental change will happen in
the near future.
It's important because North Korea is not contained within its
borders. It is a world player in instability and proliferation. If you want to
talk about the Middle East, Hezbollah, Hamas and the PLO have all received arms
and training from North Korea. Iran and Syria's nuclear reactors — that latter
bombed by Israel — were all designed and built by North Koreans. The North
Koreans have done tech transfers with Pakistani missile systems with the IRA.
The history of North Korean support of rogue players is long, and they continue
to do this now. That is not even to discuss what happens if a nuclear weapon, or
chemical and biological weapons, go missing.
This is everyone's responsibility; it is not an act of charity.
It is our responsibility to fix this problem now before it becomes our
children's bigger problem.
The Acting Chair: I want to jump in on the question to
Mr. Kim. Do you have the number of the North Korean defectors in Thailand, Laos
or China, so that we know what is really the number that you need Canada to get
involved? South Korea, as well.
Mr. Kim: We can gauge numbers and metrics by the number of
people who successfully make it back or make it to places like Thailand or South
Korea. In the past 15 years, there are about 30,000 North Korean refugees who
have settled in South Korea. They have successfully escaped from the country.
The only escape route now, really, is through China and into Southeast Asia,
because there is really no other way to get out.
The number of North Koreans who have escaped yearly has
decreased, especially since Kim Jong-un has taken power. That's been due to
proactive measures by the North Koreans and, to a certain degree, the Chinese to
interdict North Koreans from escaping the country. They found that refugees,
especially high-value, high-level defectors, are problematic to the regime these
days, and they have clamped down on the number of people who have been able to
escape. So the number of people who have successfully been able to escape the
country has trickled down to about 1,000 per year.
Most of them will want to go to South Korea because of common
culture, language and the benefits of going there. However, there will be people
who will not want to go to South Korea. One reason is that their family is back
home. As Hyeonseo mentioned, if it is found out that you have gone to South
Korea, your family gets pretty stiff punishment: the concentration camp, where
you basically never to get out.
Another reason is that if you mention you are going to a country
that is not South Korea, the punishment if you are repatriated and caught seems
to be a little less than, for instance, if you want to go to South Korea.
There are many reasons for refugees to want to come to Canada,
not to mention that, anecdotally, we have heard that Canada is considered to be
a socialist country and a friendly one to North Koreans, as well.
There will be a segment. We know this for sure, as we have spoken
to activists on the ground who do work on getting people to safe havens. There
is an interest. It is just a matter of the fact that the door is not open yet.
The Acting Chair: Do you have the number in Thailand?
Mr. Kim: In Thailand, at any given time, it could be
anywhere between 100 to 200. It is always in flux.
The South Korean government processes North Korean refugees quite
quickly, because they have the capability to do so, and they have been doing it
for the past 15 years. The South Koreans process North Korean refugees within
anywhere between three to eight weeks. They are not there for an incredibly long
time, if they wish to go to South Korea.
Senator Andreychuk: The United States has been advocating
a lot with North Korea and has passed a human rights act. Why are the numbers so
small going into the U.S., which seems to be an alternative compared to the
other countries? Is it the processing that is unusual or different, or is there
some other reason?
Mr. Hong: There are three reasons, initially, that explain
this low number of North Koreans in the United States. First, culturally, North
Koreans are trained from birth to see Americans as evil. School children are
taught math problems by the number of American soldiers or tanks you blow up or
kill, for example. It is very difficult for them to make the mental leap of
America being a welcoming place for them, despite the presence of a significant
and sizable Korean-American diaspora in the United States.
Second, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the
State Department do fairly stringent background checks that end up taking nine
months or a year and a half.
At this point, I would like to make a comment on the previous
testimony. The Government of Thailand does not protect refugees; they just don't
deport them. There is a slight difference there. So while these refugees are in
Thailand, they are sitting in a detention centre, fighting over a tiny scrap. I
have been to these detention centres. It's a very unpleasant existence. When
someone from South Korea shows up and says, “You can go to South Korea tomorrow
or stick around here for nine months and hope your FBI clearance works out,”
most of them eventually will switch.
The last reason — and this is probably not politically correct to
say — is that the Republic of Korea is embarrassed when a North Korean chooses
to go somewhere else but Korea because it's saying that Korean society is not
for them or that it is not paradise on earth for Korean people or that
reunification may not be within their grasp.
Under previous administrations, the Republic of Korea's
government very aggressively intervened and actually would pressure refugees to
not pick the United States. Now it is a little bit less of a priority. There was
an incident previously where three refugees that were seeking asylum in South
Korea were in the South Korean consulate, which is next door to the American
consulate, and they jumped the fence into the American consulate from there.
That will tell you sometimes that, as Jack mentioned, not only will some North
Korean refugees feel that South Korea may not be for them, there is also a
rumour mill that goes back home that says that actually life in South Korea is
not all it's cracked up to be. There are a number of reasons why America or
Canada would be compelling, but the institutional barriers still remain despite
three reauthorizations of the North Korean Human Rights Act in the United
States. It still takes a long time.
Senator Jaffer: Thank you very much, to both of you. Mr.
Hong, I really admire your courage and wish you well.
Mr. Kim, I have been very occupied with the issue of Korea
because I also was an immigration lawyer. One of my challenges is that I also
was brought on a temporary program from Uganda, so I know of the program you
speak of, but that has to be a government policy. We don't know what will happen
The struggle I've had — and I know you're the right person to
answer this — is that the definition of refugees causes great issues. I don't
need to tell you about it, but it's a challenge. After hearing today that 80 per
cent of the people who leave are women and that often they leave due to gender
persecution, have you used our gender guidelines to get some women into Canada?
Mr. Kim: The biggest problem is that, at this point in
time, as policy stands and as the legal framework stands, if you don't fall, for
instance, under the government-assisted refugee program or if you can't be a
privately sponsored refugee, namely, those who rely on UNHCR designations and
registration, there is a no go. There's really no way to get to Canada at that
point in time.
Because of the South Korean constitution and the fact that, de
facto, North Koreans, when they leave North Korea, are considered South Korean
citizens, UNHCR will not register folks who do escape from North Korea and
Thailand and end up there. So, if you don't get that registration, you can't be
a GAR. You can't be a PSR refugee as well. As such, you are kind of out of luck
if you don't fall within one of those programs.
The UNHCR, in my opinion, to a certain degree, hides behind this
whole durable solution moniker that, to a certain degree, we've actually
enshrined in our immigration regulations as well. However, there are certain
things that may not cause, for instance, a North Korean to be automatically
accepted as a South Korean citizen. There are some things that we ourselves, as
a country, would abhor as well — if you have participated in crimes against
humanity, if you have been a criminal, if there are certain inadmissibility
issues as well.
But getting that clarification from the South Korean government
for an issue about North Korean refugees is a very sensitive issue. Temporary
public policy can work, but a more permanent solution may be something like the
Americans did, like just make it legislation. It doesn't matter if you are a
North Korean or if you are eligible for South Korean citizenship, as long as you
have not taken South Korean citizenship before, you're eligible to become a GAR
or a PSR.
Mr. Hong: Would it be all right if I chimed in just a
Senator Jaffer: Absolutely.
Mr. Hong: I will have to differ from my colleague. The
UNHCR has taken North Korean refugees, and the South Korean constitution is not
a deterrent to that because there are a lot of constitutions in the world that
say that, “If you have a grandfather from Ireland, you're Irish,” or something
like that. That's not the deterrent. The deterrent is, as Jack is rightfully
saying, that Canada recognizes the Republic of Korea. The way the United States
resolved this is in the 2004 act, section 302. I've submitted this to the
committee. They worded it this way:
The purpose of this section is to clarify that North Koreans
are not barred from eligibility for refugee status or asylum in the United
States on account of any legal right to citizenship they may enjoy under the
Constitution of the Republic of Korea. It is not intended in any way to
prejudice whatever rights to citizenship North Koreans may enjoy under the
Constitution of the Republic of Korea, or to apply to former North Korean
nationals who have availed themselves of those rights.
That was their way of saying, “I know you have those rights in
South Korea, but, under U.S. law, for the purpose of accepting North Korean
refugees, we will classify you as not South Korean citizens.” That kind of
wording would be fairly simple, I think, if that was of interest to the Canadian
Senator Jaffer: I know the gender guidelines are
Canadian-specific and not UNHCR, but I would be interested to know, from what
you have said, Mr. Hong, if UNHCR is looking at women who suffer gender
persecution. Have they been given refugee status?
Mr. Hong: I would answer that carefully because the UNHCR
is also in a precarious position when they operate in the People's Republic of
China. They do not advocate for only North Korean refugees. They advocate for
all refugees in that territory, and they have found themselves in a balancing
act of pushing hard on this and not on that. I will say that North Korean women
are especially vulnerable for a number of reasons, both in China and North
Korea. I think we should pursue every avenue possible for special
classification, but I should be careful of speaking on behalf of the UNHCR given
their challenging position.
Senator Hubley: Thank you for your presentations today,
both of you. It has been wonderful. It has been a lot of learning.
Both of you have mentioned what Canada can do to help with the
situation. I think one of the comments by Mr. Hong was to streamline the process
of immigration to Canada, and I believe it was also noted that assisting
refugees would be an advantageous thing to do.
This seems like it's an exterior solution. Is there anything that
can be done internally? Are there avenues open to countries to I guess negotiate
or have a diplomatic relationship with North Korea? I was a little bit taken
aback when you said they seek only survival. It seems like it has kind of shut
the door to many opportunities that countries would have to relate to them. Is
there anything you would like to add to that?
Mr. Hong: Yes, but it's a difficult question to answer. I
think that, for most governments, by instinct, there is a mirroring effect that
naturally happens. It's human instinct. You assume your counterpart has the same
intentions or the same desires, and that's how you start a negotiation. When
diplomats, especially from the European Union and other countries, meet with
North Korean officials, they assume, “If we offer you a boost in your GDP and
give you this much aid and assistance and bring you to our capital for a state
dinner, those are things you must want because those are things I want.
Therefore, if we trade the closure of one concentration camp or one dissident
being released for that, wouldn't it work?
That works for countries that are somewhat susceptible to
democratic pressures or countries that are interlinked with the global economy
such that, as with South Africa under apartheid, external pressures will
immediately impact the economy internally. North Korea has neither of those
pressures. There is no public polling or voting in North Korea. You could have a
100 per cent disapproval rating, and it doesn't matter. In fact, there was a
time during the famine when a million or two North Koreans starved to death,
where the regime said, “We could lose 90 per cent, and it doesn't matter.”
You actually could look at North Korea not as one country but as
a state within a state. In fact, I would go several layers beyond that, but
Pyongyang is really North Korea. Pyongyang is the favourite of elites, the party
members, the military, the people that are loyal to the family. Everybody
outside of Pyongyang is in a different universe. When you speak with North
Korean defectors, their lives are dramatically different based on whether they
were in Pyongyang or not. Pyongyang is like the safe capital that you would see
in a dystopian movie.
I believe that there are ways countries can leverage and
influence the situation inside North Korea. There are a lot of ways, but the
countries need to be willing to recognize that North Korea does not operate in
good faith, period. If you're negotiating on nuclear weapons or human rights
issues, they cannot be given up. I would like to share just a brief reason why
human rights is not on the table.
Reform, to the North Korean leadership, means their own
destruction. They are not brilliant, but they are not stupid. They've looked at
history. They've seem what happened in Romania, what happened in Libya, what
happened in Iraq and what happened in Italy with Mussolini. They know what
happens when people you've tortured and starved and killed suddenly get some
money or power. They are not ignorant of that fact, especially in the recent
Even if the world got together and every single member of the
United Nations said, “We will give you full immunity from war crimes. We'll give
you each $1 billion,” they know somewhere, someone that was a cousin or a
relative of one of the hundreds of thousands they've killed in concentration
camps will come after them and, because of that, they've literally tortured
themselves into a corner. They're unable to loosen up their grip on human rights
because of that. It's a non-starter. That's why we have to rethink the framework
that we're starting with from the beginning.
It may seem implausible that North Korea will change, but it is.
It was implausible a few years ago that Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen
would all have revolutions one after the other. It was implausible that the Cold
War would end. It was implausible that the United States would come into
existence. I think North Korea is on the cusp of change. The more we can do to
recognize and hope for that and will it into existence, the more likely that
transition will be smooth and not escalate into a global war and we will not see
loose weapons of mass destruction become problems for our children.
There are a number of recommendations I would be happy to share
if that was of more interest, but I really believe Canada can do something that
many others cannot simply because they are not viewed with immediate and
instinctive suspicion, not only by the North Koreans but also by the Chinese.
When the United States pushes something, it's perceived naturally by Beijing as
the U.S. trying to play in our backyard. I don't think Canada has any
colonialist or global imperialist instincts — not that the United States does,
but the perception is there. It's something on which Canada can move freely and
more openly than other countries can.
Mr. Kim: I would like to stress that there are
difficulties in engaging with the regime. As Adrian mentioned, there has to be a
good faith effort. What we can do right now is pivot away from the regime and go
directly to the North Korean people themselves.
One of the things in the past 10 years that has enabled us to do
that is technology. There are groups that are, for lack of a better term,
delivering USB keys into North Korea that have information. For instance, the
Korean version of Wikipedia is on USB keys so that North Koreans can take them
into cheap USB or DVD readers and access the outside world. The USB keys include
not only things like Wikipedia but also movies and TV shows. “Prison Break” and
“Game of Thrones,” apparently, are very popular in North Korea, believe it or
The USB keys are just one primitive step in connecting us with
the North Korean people. Such technologies as Facebook satellites, or Project Loon,
which Google is doing, where they blast a balloon into the stratosphere and the
balloon transmits WIFI signals over Sri Lanka right now, can be used in North
Korea to connect us to the North Korean people so that we can bypass the regime.
We don't have to deal with the regime. We can deal directly with the people and
have the people connect with each other and the outside world as well.
Senator Cordy: Thank you both for being here. It has been
a great learning experience this morning, as Senator Hubley has said.
Mr. Hong, you told us about the experience of getting some young
people from North Korea. You took them through China in an attempt to get to the
U.S. embassy, but they ended up going to South Korea and were repatriated. How
many times are those who eventually make their way to South Korea repatriated to
North Korea? How many from South Korea are sent back to North Korea?
Mr. Hong: In our situation with the six refugees that
sought protection from the United States, the Chinese had taken them into
custody. We got arrested on a Thursday, and the head of the prison told me that
they would send them all back on Monday. There is a weekly meeting place where
the Chinese public security officials take their North Korean detainees to the
bridge and hand them off to the North Koreans, and the North Koreans take them
over to their concentration camps after some interrogation. They have almost a
regularized delivery schedule where they pass the North Koreans along. We got
lucky. The governments worked out a solution that did not lose face for China.
If you have a refugee on Chinese soil that gets asylum in the United States,
it's a big point of contention. They ended up going to South Korea, which was
not their choice. They didn't choose South Korea, but they would choose South
Korea over a Chinese prison cell. That was a one-time thing that has never since
happened, and we're grateful for that.
North Koreans do not seek asylum in consulates or embassies
anymore because the Chinese government, after a few dozen times, has learned. If
you go to visit a foreign consulate in China, there are two layers of fencing,
barbed wires and military soldiers on guard there now. That's no longer a viable
exit route. Most of the refugees will go the long way. They will take three or
four months by train, boat or bus or on foot to go to Southeast Asia. Some go to
Mongolia. A small number go through Russia. Generally, the numbers have gotten
more difficult because North Korea has done more fencing, CCTV is on the border
and North Korea has ramped up border security in general. The Chinese have done
the same. The easiest way for this to no longer be a problem is to ramp up
security on the Chinese end so the North Koreans can't make it over.
There have been a few cases in the last few years that are
important because several North Korean soldiers have escaped from their units,
crossed over to the Chinese side and robbed and killed Chinese civilians. You
can imagine the tension that has erupted between Beijing and Pyongyang. There is
a lot of reasons for tension, but this in particular affects Chinese public
opinion. The border regions have become very tense. Even people formerly willing
to help North Koreans now are not as willing, either because they are afraid for
their own safety or because the public pressure is there.
To be clear, the Chinese government has offered rewards for
people that turn in North Korean refugees, but they offer bigger rewards if you
turn in a broker, or an underground activist, or a missionary that helps move
refugees. North Korean intelligence officials operate both with and without
Chinese permission in China. They will kidnap people, including American
residents that have been assassinated in China, for having sheltered or moved
North Korean refugees.
Senator Cordy: If they are handed back to North Korea by
the Chinese, or if they are discovered and brought back to North Korea, what
happens to them? Do they go to the camp forever?
Mr. Hong: It depends on how well connected you are and why
you left. If you can convincingly say you got drunk and crossed the wrong fence,
and if you bribed the right person, you might get out. As a rule, leaving North
Korea without government permission is a capital offence, legally, so
theoretically, everyone will be sent to a concentration camp. If you had
converted to Christianity, or if you had sought a cousin in Los Angeles and you
wanted to bring your whole family out after you, then you're a threat to
national security. At that point, your family will probably go with you, up to
Another point is that pregnant women and children are
particularly vulnerable as well. First, pregnant women are presumed to have
Chinese fathers. Many times, unless you can verify there is North Korean
parentage — North Korea is a special kind of racist state. They believe in the
concept of blood purity that probably does not really exist anyway, but they
will forcibly abort the babies or force a pregnant woman to deliver them.
Refugees have testified and said that they were forced to drown their newborn
children in buckets.
Moreover, many children brought back from China don't have a
birthright. As someone mentioned earlier, they don't get Chinese papers or I.D,
so they can't go to school or go to work. They are assumed to be of mixed race,
so North Korea doesn't want them either. If China doesn't want them and wants to
deport them, and if North Korea won't take them because they're not North Korean
citizens, theoretically a third country should step in and accept them as
We pushed that case in 2006, when we brought two North Korean
orphans into the U.S. consulate and tried to force the U.S. to come up with a
policy for them. They are considered stateless. Under adoption conventions and
international rules, you have to have some sort of certification from the home
country. North Korea will not give you paperwork verifying their parentage or
legitimacy. I've also seen situations where certain governments demanded death
certificates to verify that they were an orphan. I don't think North Korea will
give you a death certificate for parents that were killed in a concentration
camp or starved to death.
The situation for stateless children and pregnant women is such
that they are extremely high risk, and so far there hasn't been a good solution
besides ad hoc one-off attempts.
Mr. Kim: Not to add to the litany of atrocities that we
have just heard, but the first instinct of the North Korean regime, once someone
is repatriated, is to torture them, because the North Korean regime doesn't know
what they have done in China, for example whether or not they have met
missionaries. It's a systematic way of trying to elicit information out of
someone who has been repatriated. It takes about two or three months in a prison
camp through intense interrogation and torture to go through that. If you're
lucky and you have a high-level uncle who can bribe your way through, as Adrian
mentioned, you can get out. Sometimes you're in such a bad state of health that
the North Koreans release you for a reprieve and tell you to report back to the
prison for more torturing, if that's the case. A lot of North Koreans use that
opportunity to escape again. They're caught again and then it goes through the
whole cycle. It's a precarious situation for North Koreans in China.
What used to happen is that the northern area of China was very
heavily populated with ethnic Koreans. At the beginning, when North Koreans were
starting to escape when the famine happened, ethnic Koreans were somewhat
sympathetic to the plight of North Koreans escaping and would help them. That's
changed to a certain degree with respect to the attitudes, and it's also changed
because the number of ethnic Koreans that live in that area has drastically
shrunk from what it was in the 1990s. There used to be 350,000 ethnic Koreans in
that area. Now they have all immigrated to places like South Korea or even to
Canada, and the Chinese government has not stopped that to a certain degree, for
their own domestic reasons. But one has to think that it drains the swamp, so to
speak, where North Korean refugees can hide.
Senator Nancy Ruth: I have three issues. Mr. Hong, I want
to hear your list of what you think Canada should do.
Secondly, on this business of 80 to 90 per cent of women being
refugees, are those that end up in Thailand primarily female, and if so, does
South Korea make special advantages available to them in terms of housing or
employment when they go to South Korea? What is the impact of gender on this
group and South Korea's policy?
The third thing is I don't quite remember it and I don't remember
which of you said it, but you said something like if Canada could open itself to
NGOs that provided political help, human rights help and so on, it might do
something. I don't know what it was, but I want to hear more about it.
Mr. Hong: In the order of your question, respectfully, I
would propose some ways that Canada could help address the issue of North Korea
As I and several senators have mentioned, the refugee problem is
a symptom, not the core issue. First, I think Canada could apply international
transparency standards on any humanitarian aid in North Korea, whether via a UN
vehicle or international vehicle or directly. Many countries make special
exemptions when they give aid to North Korea. They assume that's just the way it
is. There was a time when the North Koreans would not allow any Korean speaker
involved in the delivery of aid, so you could never actually ask anybody if
they're getting the aid. North Korea does all the antics that totalitarian
governments do, where they set up a factory and tell 10 different people they
own that factory exclusively. First, apply international transparency standards
to humanitarian aid.
Second is human rights sanctions and secondary sanctions on North
Korean entities involved in crimes against humanity. That's a direct way to stop
people from profiting from and continuing to exploit the suffering of people.
There are increasingly databases and lists of companies involved in that value
chain of persecuting North Koreans and participating in weapons proliferation.
Third, there is the Helsinki process, which doesn't get enough
credit, where you have any negotiation involved in three baskets. The first
basket is security issues; second is trade, culture and economy; and third is
humanitarian and human rights issues. The concept is if you want to talk about
one, you talk about all three.
The problem is most countries say that's just the way the North
Koreans are. Let's talk about missiles but not those two other things, but if
everyone said, “No, we are going to talk about all three all the time or you get
nothing,” North Korea would have to respond for its survival.
Moreover, outside the issue of streamlining the issue of North
Korean refugees coming to Canada, there is room for coordination on North Korean
human rights. If Canada would be so bold as to establish an international
contact group for all the ambassadors and people who are tasked with dealing
with North Korean human rights so we could coordinate and have a united front,
not only would that exponentially increase the effectiveness of policy, it would
also lay the groundwork for changes in North Korea. Because when changes come,
we have to respond quickly so those changes are successful. Any time anyone
stands up to a totalitarian regime, their lifespan drops dramatically. It is
important for those of us wanting to see a free North Korea to be prepared to
move quickly if that window comes.
Along that note, and this is something I have spoken about with
your colleagues in the parliament of the United Kingdom and elsewhere, investing
in future technocratic leadership for North Korea would be critically
important. We don't want another general that may be slightly more unhinged with
nuclear weapons to take over. If we can find people that can establish security,
stability, international trade and democratic principles, or at least the
protection of human rights, we will make sure a new North Korea does not go the
way of Libya except with nuclear weapons in the mix.
That's an initial starting point. I think it can be a fairly
comprehensive approach. Again, because Canada does not have the baggage that
other countries do, it would be very clearly seen as an act on principle. The
United Nations has now said these are crimes against humanity, and theoretically
that should trigger various UN conventions on intervention and the loss of
sovereignty. When human rights atrocities rise to that level, you would argue
under international law that exists now that North Korea does not have a right
to sovereignty any more. That's not to say the government ever did to begin with,
because they are not an elected government.
As far as your second question, the number of women is high
proportionately among North Korean refugees, but I would argue that the South
Korean government does not offer any meaningful special counselling or resources,
especially for victims of sex trafficking. They have a process where North
Korean refugees go through something called “Hanawon,” a resettlement
transition centre whether they learn how to use cell phones, open a bank account
and speak in a South Korean dialect. Some of them are trained for different
careers, but most of them are trained to offer careers that we would say are in
the grey zone, for unskilled labourers and a bit demeaning.
Regarding concentration camp survivors, it's not just one network
of camps. There are several tiers of camps. If you do a low-level offence, you
get re-educated for three months and come back. If you do a high-level offence,
you go and die; it's a death camp. These are akin to Auschwitz and Dachau. So
not everybody goes to those camps.
Foreign prisoners in North Korea do no not go to any of these
camps. They are sentenced to hard labour, but it's a one-person camp where — I
don't want to make light of it — they're gardening, effectively. So we have
video footage of these camps where American prisoners have been to. It's a
completely different network from what the North Koreans face.
But the women in South Korea have not been given particular
treatment. I spoke with one prisoner who was born and raised in a concentration
camp, so you can imagine the PTSD and trauma he has had. He didn't even know
Pyongyang existed. He didn't know Kim Jong-il was a person. That's the level of
depravity that the system contained. He didn't see a counsellor or a
psychologist once during resettlement. That tells you how much work needs to be
done, but that's also a societal issue. East Asian and Korean cultures do not
yet acknowledge mental illness and trauma; most cultures don't. The short answer
is we need a lot more work to help address the special concerns that these women
When I was in China interviewing refugees who were trying to get
into our shelters, I would have to put women in the uncomfortable position of
telling me, a male younger than them, what they have gone through so I could
verify that they're legitimate. Then they have to do that half a dozen more
times, at the State Department, Homeland Security, and the FBI. Then they
testify somewhere. Each time a North Korean shows up on television, they have to
go through that trauma again. We can certainly be doing a lot more to help those
Mr. Kim: To be fair to the South Koreans, this whole issue
about influx of North Korean refugees is rather new. Before the mid-1990s, there
were only a few hundred North Koreans that escaped the country, and now they
have 30,000. So some of these questions and issues they have to deal with, for
instance, the gender and PTSD issues that have only recently been tackled, the
fact that the government now feels that they can't do it all alone and are
trying to download things to civil society in South Korea are things that are a
When it comes to Canada and what we can do, there are two main
things that we can help with. The first is, as I mentioned, getting information
in and out of North Korea. A lot of NGOs are right now in the midst of doing
these things, for instance the USB keys, thinking about more permanent solutions
to getting the information traffic in and out — Wi-Fi solutions and things like
that. There was a project at the University of Toronto, supported by the
Canadian government, in the context of Iran where the University of Toronto
distributed an app to Iranian citizens that allowed them to keep track of what
their government promised them, and each time the government broke a promise,
the app said “broken,” and the Iranian people were able to access this. Millions
of people accessed this app. We're not there with North Korea yet, but we can be.
The second thing NGOs do very well is reach out to the North
Korean refugee community in South Korea. There is 30,000 of them, and they're a
microcosm of what North Korea may be and of the problems that may happen if
North Korea opens up — things like capacity-building, the fact that the North
Korean government doesn't teach North Koreans marketable and compactible skills
that they can take across the world. There are myriad challenges we face with
the North Korean refugee community, and NGOs that tackle these problems and try
to capacity build within that community should be supported.
Senator Nancy Ruth: By the federal government?
Mr. Kim: By any government, really.
The Acting Chair: We have only two minutes, so brief
questions and answers, please.
Senator Martin: A lot of my questions have been answered,
so I will give my time to Senator Jaffer.
Senator Jaffer: I have a very quick question. I am
interested in the children. Sweden takes orphan children, and I have been
pushing for us to take the North Korean orphans and set them up like Sweden does.
We have amazing analysts. If you could give that information, perhaps you could
have a recommendation around bringing orphan children to our country.
Second, you were talking about specific issues with gender. That
would be helpful.
Mr. Kim, I am sure our analysts have this, but you talked about
the wording that the U.S. has. If you could provide that to the clerk, it would
Senator Cordy: My question was related to the unrest on
the ground and what we should do in preparation for that, but I think you
answered that earlier by talking about investing in leadership and making sure
the people are ready. So my question has been answered.
The Acting Chair: The last question?
Senator Martin: I have a couple of questions that could be
addressed in a response rather than in this committee, since we are out of time.
To Mr. Hong: How could a potential Canadian act overcome the
problems of the North Korean Human Rights Act that the United States enacted?
What would some of those recommendations be?
Second, I didn't get to ask this, but I heard that there is a
program in the U.K. that allows defectors to settle in the U.K. I don't know if
I am right, but I would like to hear about that program and whether that is
something we could be examining. If you could submit answers, that would be
The Acting Chair: Thank you very much. As you can see, the
information provided by you is informative for all of us. This is a learning
experience for all of us here. We hope that we can have all the information we
need in order to have the report as promised by the chair.