While working on my project about the lives of North Korean defectors I was asked to document Justice for North Korea’s six-week conference on human rights. The event is divided into six two-hour lectures featuring documentary films, guest speakers and human rights activists, and aims to give a close up and personal look at the challenges facing North Koreans.
On the first night I was able to spend some time speaking to and photographing this man, Kang Won Cheol, a defector who successfully reached South Korea in 2005.
On his first attempt to flee North Korea he was only 14 years old (13 in the Western system of birthdays). Though he was able to escape to China, he found himself lost and confused until he was picked up by Chinese border police and forcefully repatriated. The flight back to Pyongyang was the first time he had ever been on an airplane, an experience that he says would have been “a dream come true for any North Korean” had the circumstances been different.
Once in custody of the North Korean secret police he was, along with a dozen or so others, interrogated for weeks while they tried to get him to admit to being a defector. While under the scrutiny of the interrogators he witnessed the torture – and in some cases the executions – of the others in the group, uncertain of his future. During this time he remembered thinking that if he was able to survive he would never again try to escape.
He managed to resist however, and the police were unable to conclusively prove that he was planning on defecting, instead believing his story that he had just been searching for food. Foraging attempts are becoming increasingly common as the food situation in North Korea becomes desperate, says Kang.
Despite his promise to himself that he would not put himself in such a dangerous situation again, Won Cheol decided to attempt escape again soon after he was released. In 2005, still a teenager, he snuck into China for a second time. To be caught was almost certain death, or a lifetime in a labor camp at the very least.
With the help of a South Korean missionary he was eventually able to cross into Mongolia where he was flown to Seoul and given South Korean citizenship. I can’t possibly imagine any high school students I know being capable of such a feat.
I will be speaking to Won Cheol again in more detail as this project continues, but if the conference continues to put me in touch with more people like this, the next six weeks should be an amazing and enlightening experience.