by Kristen Kim
While interning at Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR), Anji, YunSuk, and I were exposed to many shocking truths about the deteriorating state of human rights in North Korea as well as the difficulties that North Korean defectors face even after escaping the country. The latter was especially surprising to us because we had naively assumed that once North Koreans reached freedom, they would be able to adjust seamlessly into a better, more comfortable lifestyle. Instead, we learned that North Korean defectors often live in a third country, such as China, for significant periods of time before entering South Korea or other destinations. Because China had a policy of forced repatriation of defectors until very recently, the defectors would live in hiding for fear of being caught by Chinese authorities. If they were caught and sent back to North Korea, they and their families faced severe punishment and most likely the death penalty.
Compelled to share what we learned with the Princeton community, we formed PNKHR and have been actively raising awareness about North Korean human rights through various events. By far, the most rewarding of these activities was our 31-hour fast for the thirty-one North Korean refugees whom China repatriated this past March, or “31 for 31.” From noon on Tuesday, April 10th to the evening of Wednesday, April 11th, over fifty Princeton students participated in 31 for 31 to help PNKHR accomplish our three-fold goal of fasting, filming, and fundraising. Though it is impossible to truly experience what it would be like to starve in North Korea, we decided to deliberately abstain from eating food in order to get a sense of the hunger of the North Koreans who have to worry about food on a day-to-day basis.
In addition to fasting, we filmed participants throughout the thirty-one hours and interviewed them about their personal experiences. We also asked individuals to film themselves using their own cameras, computers, or phones. The purpose of this was to obtain raw documentation of the participants’ experiences and all that they were feeling and learning throughout the fast. PNKHR plans to put the clips together in the form of a short documentary film and to upload and circulate it via the Internet. This is our attempt at raising awareness at other universities around the United States as well as in South Korea about North Korean human rights and the potential impact that students can have.
Finally, throughout the fast, we aimed to fundraise at least $2000 – the money necessary for NKHR to bring a defector in China to safe harbor. Each participant sought sponsors to support them financially for the fast by asking friends, family, Princeton staff and faculty, and other contacts. In addition, on the second day of the fast, we set up a booth Frist to tell students about 31 for 31, the recent repatriation of the thirty-one refugees. We also explained our goal of $2000 and gave them the opportunity to contribute by buying a PNKHR t-shirt or giving us a donation.
When we first announced our ambitious goal to our participants, many were skeptical that we could accomplish this on a college campus and in such a short span of time. To be honest, even those of us on the PNKHR board were not sure that we could do it. However, thanks to the generous contributions from our sponsors, we were amazingly able to reach and even exceed our goal. The participants are thrilled to have made a very tangible impact on the life of a North Korean defector hiding in China.
As a new student group, it was highly encouraging to see the level of enthusiasm PNKHR was able to generate through 31 for 31 on our campus, especially among non-Korean Americans who tend to be less familiar with North Korean human rights issues. We hope that through our continued efforts, we can keep up this campus-wide conversation about North Korean human rights and move more and more students to join us in bringing change to North Korea both during and beyond our college years.