Kim recounts Korean refugee work

by Taylor Malmsheimer | 4/23/12 10:00pm

Although North Korea is notorious for its repressive political system, there is relatively little U.S. and global awareness about human rights violations in the region, human rights activist Mike Kim said in a lecture at the Rockefeller Center on Monday. Kim spent four years in North Korea helping refugees use a "modern day Underground Railroad" to escape to South Korea and now works to raise awareness about North Korean human rights violations and sex trafficking.

Kim is the author of "Escaping North Korea: Defiance and Hope in the World's Most Repressive Country" and the founder of the non-governmental organization Crossing Borders. He focused on human rights violations and sex trafficking in his talk before answering questions from audience members.

"Today, we are not going to let Pyongyang drive our conversation," government professor Jennifer Lind said. "We're going to be talking about an issue we don't hear a lot about, the issue of human rights."

For four years, Kim lived in northeast China, about 30 minutes from the North Korean border. He worked at a refugee shelter, where he helped North Korean victims of sex trafficking travel the 6,000-mile journey from northeast China to freedom in Bangkok. Kim's shelter also sent teams into North Korea to help citizens escape local oppression.

Kim, then a successful financial planner, first traveled to China on business at age 24, where he met a 16-year-old North Korean refugee.

"I was just rocked by that experience," Kim said. "I remember sitting across from clients talking about financials and suddenly, the job I had loved, I didn't love as much. I was thinking about the North Koreans."

Kim liquidated all his money, bought a one-way plane ticket and called his mom to tell her the news he was moving to northeast China to help North Koreans. Masquerading as a Taekwondo student studying at a prestigious Taekwondo school in North Korea, Kim saved numerous North Korean lives while living in rural China. In his lecture, Kim discussed one particularly moving story about two refugees, Mrs. Lee and Ms. Kim, with whom he traveled for 6,000 miles through Southeast Asia.

"To this day, when I call Mrs. Lee, I'll have to pause for a little while when she breaks down and cries," Kim said. "At the end of it she always says, Thank you, thank you so much for saving my life. I owe you my life.' It's very rewarding, but some people might like this kind of gratitude. For me, it's kind of awkward."

After four years in the field, Kim retired due to safety concerns about North Korea's knowledge of his actions. He now works with Crossing Borders and speaks at college campuses around the country discussing his work and his recent memoir. Kim said he enjoys talking to college students because of their power to change the world, as well as the influence his college days had on his work.

"I started Crossing Borders with some of my college roommates, and a lot of the funding for Crossing Borders came from people I knew in college," Kim said. "Visiting campuses reminds me of when I was a student who dreamed and learned about what a small group of people can do to change a situation."

Kim's main message to students was to pursue their passion and work to combine both success and fulfillment.

"I hope students will be inspired," he said of his talk. "That's always one of the goals of my talks, to inspire students to dream and follow their passion and to pursue a career path where they can both be successful and also find it fulfilling."

Interviewed audience members said they found Kim's talk informative, inspiring and relevant to Dartmouth students. Retired Dick's House nurse practitioner Alice Werbel, who attended the talk because of her personal interest in international affairs and North Korea, stressed the importance of Kim's message to students.

"I think it's fascinating and particularly important for students to hear how one person can make a difference," she said.

Lind said she found the talk to be relatable for students and thought it would inspire audience members.

"Students can say, That kind of looks like me in a few years,'" she said. "I love the idea that he found something deeply important to him and made something happen."

Claire Kim '13 said she was interested in Kim's lecture because of her personal connection to the issue. Claire Kim is a dual citizen of the United States and South Korea, and her grandfather was a North Korean citizen who fled to South Korea during the Korean War. Claire Kim said that Mike Kim's talk helped her put her own experiences in perspective.

"As a South Korean citizen, human rights abuses in North Korea are something that matters a lot to me," she said. "The most impacting part of the lecture for me was when he talked about how the North Korean refuges would gladly give up their lives to have freedom. That really hit me. This is just another NGO for a lot of us, but for these people this is a life-or-death matter."

In his talk, Kim stressed the importance of raising awareness about human rights issues in order to initiate change.

"One of my goals is to raise awareness, because it's such an unknown issue, so that people can act, so that people can get involved and so that people can tell other people," he said.

Kim's lecture, titled "North Korea-China: A Modern Day Underground Railroad," was sponsored by the Rockefeller Center.

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