By Luis A. Ferré Sadurní
Edited by Sean Foley
The look of surprise and happiness on the faces of members of the International Affairs Association (IAA) as students continued to pour in to the G06 auditorium in Huntsman Hall on September 26 was quite a sight. About 300 students attended the talk, way more than what the IAA had expected.
The star of the event? It was Azalea Kim, a North Korean defector who came to Penn to tell her story and talk about life in the East Asian country. Kim – whose real name is not disclosed to protect her family still in the country – was invited to speak at Penn by the IAA.
The North Korean defector was brought to lecture in the United States for the first time with the aid of Jogakbo, a non-partisan organization in South Korea that looks to foster understanding between North and South Korean women.
Kim, daughter to Chinese immigrants who escaped during the Cultural Revolution, talked about the miserable conditions she had to endure during her childhood. “The Communist Party,” explained Kim through an interpreter, “distributed food once every 2 weeks, but it was never enough for the whole family.”
Based on Kim’s anecdotes, it is evident that life for immigrant families in North Korea is not so different from the discrimination many other migrant families suffer in the Western world. Constant racism and the deprivation of economic opportunities are just some of the factors that contribute to this explicit marginalization on both sides of the hemisphere.
The defector felt even more hopeless when her mother, who was constantly beaten by Kim’s father for the mismanagement of the food rations in the household, died at 52. Despite this tragic loss and the burden of living a life of constant struggle, Azalea Kim affirmed that she “had hope […] and wouldn’t live life like that anymore.” Her luck improved, however, with the death of Kim Il-Sung, North Korea’s Supreme leader for almost 46 years.
According to Ms. Kim, changes in the economic market allowed her to establish her own illicit business selling medicine. Although her new source of income skyrocketed because of an increase in demand for antibiotics during a cholera epidemic in the late nineties, Kim feared the ever-growing government crackdowns in the black market.
After witnessing the execution of a businessman involved in the black market and being interrogated herself, Kim decided to flee North Korea. Before arriving in South Korea, Kim had to pass through China, Laos, and Thailand with the help of a broker. “The most dangerous place is China; if you don’t get caught in China, you are lucky,” stated Ms. Kim.
The transition from life in North to South Korea was not easygoing at all for Kim. “It was very stressful and I cried a lot because I had no place in a capitalistic society,” expressed the defector. “I didn’t know the system, there was a different dialect; it was a lot of culture shock.”
The authoritarian system of government in North Korea displayed a sharp contrast with the overwhelming liberty Ms. Kim now possessed in South Korea. “In North Korea, the government decided where I had to go. In South Korea, I decided. I wasn’t religious, but I turned to the church hoping God would help.”
The cult of personality employed for manipulation and control in North Korea at once became evident to Kim. The defector told a personal anecdote of how one Christmas in South Korea she saw a banner that read: “Jesus is always with us.” Kim articulated her confusion because, according to her, in North Korea she used to see the exact same banner except with the words: “Kim Il-Sung is always with us.”
“I was very much confused. Was North Korea imitating Christianity? Who is God? Who is Sung? Who am I?” said Kim to the amusement of the crowd.
Upon joining Jogakbo, the defector started to acquire a sense of belonging. It is through her experiences with the nonprofit that Ms. Kim has realized reunification of both societies “is not hard […] we need to open our hearts and get to know each other. It’s already beginning.”
Azalea Kim finished the talk by answering one of Penn Political Review’s questions:
The Western perception of North Korea is almost always a negative one, would you like to highlight any positive aspects of the country that are unknown to the rest of the world?
“There are good points anywhere. Socialism can work if you run it properly, but the good thing is there is so much affection going on in North Korea. If I make some delicious food like rice cakes, I share it with my neighbor. In South Korea, I don’t even know who my neighbor is.”
Image courtesy of sakuramochi-jp.blogspot.com.