The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] Young professionals from NK seek to bring change to Pyongyang

By Kim So-hyun

Published : July 19, 2023 - 09:08

    • Link copied

Members of the North Korean Young Leaders Assembly pose with US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield (fourth from right) after their meeting in New York last week. (Courtesy of Lee Seo-hyun) Members of the North Korean Young Leaders Assembly pose with US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield (fourth from right) after their meeting in New York last week. (Courtesy of Lee Seo-hyun)

Lee Seo-hyun grew up as a proud North Korean elite, always thinking about what she could do to help make her country a better place.

That was until she saw North Korean agents abruptly take her best friend and roommate Su-jeong away from their school dormitory in Beijing in December 2013. A text message from Su-jeong that she would not be able to come back and that she was throwing away her phone at a highway rest stop was the last she heard from her. Lee later learned that Su-jeong’s father had been executed for his association with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song-thaek, who had been purged earlier that month, and that her family had been sent to a camp for political prisoners.

Kim Jong-un continued to brutally execute people who worked under Jang, beginning a reign of terror that tightened his grip over the regime. Under a system of guilt by association, if a North Korean defects or is accused of other treason, the entire family can be sent to a political prison.

“The North Korean elite live under extreme surveillance, are forced to be loyal to the Kim regime out of fear and live every day like they are walking on thin ice,” Lee said in an interview with The Korea Herald on a video call on Sunday.

“Many (North Korean elites) are now aware of the problems of the country’s system, and know that it has to change, but they cannot initiate change because of guilt by association. I understand this as I have experience of being held hostage in the North while my family was overseas.”

Lee defected to South Korea in 2014 with her family while they were living in China, and moved to the US in 2016. Having studied foreign languages at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang and finance at Dongbei University of Finance and Economics in Dalian, China, she is now doing a master’s program in international relations at Columbia University in New York.

Last week, she joined a group of fellow defectors in meetings with US policymakers and think tanks in Washington to make North Korea-related proposals, and to speak to diplomats from around 100 countries in New York to urge that the UN must keep North Korean defectors in China from getting sent back to the North.

Called the North Korean Young Leaders Assembly, the group consists of professionals in international relations, law, architecture, IT, cinema, journalism, politics and education.

Whereas North Korean defectors in the past appealed to the international community by mostly testifying to their suffering in the North and China, the new group of highly educated young professionals with diverse experiences hope to present solutions to bring about real change based on their personal experiences.

“We all share the pain of leaving behind our loved ones, as well as a sense of duty and responsibility to contribute toward bringing change to the North Korean system,” Lee said.

“(In the young leaders' group) is a film director who said he wanted to make a story for North Koreans by North Koreans. He said he believes in the power of storytelling and that he wanted to improve the situation in the North by telling the world about it. There is also a lawyer who studied the law after experiencing the fear of being sent back to the North as he could not be recognized as a refugee in China.”

Lee Seo-hyun (center) speaks at a meeting of the North Korean Young Leaders Assembly at the nonprofit Committee for Human Rights in North Korea in Washington last week. (Lee Seo-hyun) Lee Seo-hyun (center) speaks at a meeting of the North Korean Young Leaders Assembly at the nonprofit Committee for Human Rights in North Korea in Washington last week. (Lee Seo-hyun)

Lee was told that the diplomats who listened to the group at the US mission to the UN last week found their ideas, perspectives and deeply moving stories on why the North Korean human rights issue should be on the UN Security Council agenda “impactful.”

“The North Korean human rights issue is not separate from the regime’s nukes and missiles,” Lee said. "The regime was able to develop nuclear weapons to sustain itself because it exploited its people by terrorizing them through human rights violations."

The young leaders’ group seeks to encourage more people in the international community and civic society, as well as people in North Korea, to take part in efforts toward peaceful regime change in Pyongyang.

“In the past, the target of information delivery from outside was regular North Koreans. They all know now that South Korea is well off, as they have been exposed to South Korean movies or television shows over the past 20-plus years,” Lee said.

“Now, we want to educate or influence those who can actually bring about change.”

Lee’s father had served as a high-level official of Office 39, a North Korean Workers’ Party organization that manages foreign currency slush funds for the country’s leaders, and was chief executive of a shipping and trading company under Office 39. He has said in media interviews that he was responsible for operations that exported North Korean oil, minerals and agricultural products, and brought in between $50 million and $100 million a year for the regime.

Other young leaders

Among the 10 members of the North Korean Young Leaders Assembly, organized by Lee’s brother Hyun-seung, is Harry Kim, a graduate of a top university in Pyongyang who had worked overseas as an IT engineer for the North. Kim was paid $1,000 in monthly wages at the time, but he could keep only $20 for himself, as the rest went to the North Korean regime.

He made suggestions on how to approach the issue of North Korea’s hackers.

Meanwhile, Lim Cheol, a lawyer working in South Korea, said the Chinese government’s repatriation of North Korean defectors to the North was “illegal and anti-humanitarian.”

Beijing’s position is that those who fled the North illegally crossed the border with China due to poverty and do not meet the definition of refugees under the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. But if there is a risk of persecution after they have escaped, they can be seen as refugees, according to Lim, whose own family crossed the border to China for survival but could not return home for fear of persecution. His father was once sent back to the North and was tortured.

Noting that North Korean escapees in China are suffering severe human rights violations due to their unstable legal status in China, Lim called on the Chinese government to abide by the UN Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Lee Hyun-seung, Seo-hyun’s brother who had worked in shipping and mining industries to facilitate North Korea’s trade with China, is now a fellow at the nonprofit Global Peace Foundation as well as adviser to the Washington-based nongovernmental research organization Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. He organized the series of meetings last week at the White House, the US State Department, the Heritage Foundation and the UN.

Other members of the group include Park Dae-hyeon, leader of the Seoul-based nongovernmental organization Unity of Bridge Woorion that has helped over 11,000 North Korean escapees adjust to life in South Korea; Kim Mi-yeon, a Fulbright scholarship grantee who studied international relations in the US; Joh Kyeong-il, a political consultant and leader of a public forum for unificiation called Peace Agora, as well as author of the book “To Aoji;” journalist Jeong Gwang-seong; filmmaker Cho Eui-seong; and architect Nam Song.