Korean-American Mike Kim was the featured guest on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart last night. He is the author of “Escaping North Korea: Defiance and Hope in the World’s Most Repressive Country” in which he offers a compelling yet heartbreaking account of the North Korean refugees. Mike Kim is also co-founder of Crossing Borders, an NGO providing humanitarian assistance to North Korean refugees.
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In 2003, he left his financial planning business in Chicago, took with him two duffle bags, and left for China on a one-way ticket. He lived near the North Korean border and operated as an undercover student of taekwondo training under the masters from Pyongyang and eventually receiving a second-degree blackbelt. During his time in China, he learned of hundreds of thousands of North Koreans fleeing to China through a 6,000 mile underground railroad. He helped refugees for four years and now travels to bring awareness to the dire situation.
He has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and has appeared on CNN Anderson Cooper 360. His work exceptional and inspirational to us all. Close to the N. Korea both as a country and with its people, we really value Mike Kim’s insight and thoughts on the missile crisis and the two journalists captured.
Interview with Mike Kim before his appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart by June Kim.
- We are deeply concerned for Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two journalists in N. Korea. They had supposedly commiited a “grave crime” against the nation for their illegal border crossing. Can you please explain the gravity of the situation?
It is of course a very serious situation. While details of their capture are still unclear, the fact remains that they are detained in North Korea, the most repressive country in the world. The North Korean regime is very unpredictable and it is oftentimes very difficult to understand what they might be up to. While they could potentially continue to keep the journalists for some political motive, my hope is that the regime will want to use them as a bargaining chip so that they can in the end be released.
- They were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in North Korea. Can you please elaborate what “12 years of hard labor” may entail?
I titled chapter 6 of Escaping North Korea “Gulags” and in that chapter I describe some of what goes on inside the walls of North Korean prisons. North Korean prison camp survivors that I’ve interviewed go into horrific detail about the beatings, starvation, torture, and inhumane treatment they endured. The country is known to have the most political prisoners of any country in the world. In that chapter, I also have a small section titled “Forced Labor” where I mention the regime’s dependence on this type of labor for industries such as sawing, construction, and mining. The day begins early at 6am and ends late at 11pm with very few breaks for food and rest with a lot of difficult labor. One woman told me that her primary work was to saw wood. They were organized in groups and had to saw wood all day counting “1, 2, 3″ and were beat if they slowed down or stopped. But some have commented that even if Ling and Lee were sent to prison, they wouldn’t be sent to certain high security, more harsh areas because North Korea would not want to reveal certain information to the US and international community upon their release.
- What may be the possible next steps in ameliorating the stiuation if any at all?
The next step is to create international pressure for their release (which has been done through means such as vigils and Facebook), but the problem is that no one really knows how North Korea responds to international pressure and how helpful this will be in the end. Still, that is the best we can do and to hope and pray for a speedy release. Now it’s really in the hands of the two governments to work out an agreement for their release, and in a sense we have to wait until the North Korean regime is ready for this next step because nothing can be done until they’ve decided that they are ready to talk and negotiate.
– Would you say that N. Korea is playing games (in either the nuclear test situation or set an example for the journalists)?
I can only speak from my experience as I don’t have any experience with diplomacy or these types of situations. The lessons I drew from living among North Koreans for four years and buliding relationships with North Korean businessmen, government officials, and associations, is that they tend to be very calculating. I’ve encountered the “what can I get for this” mindset numerous times. We had to negotiate the release of one of our Chinese staff who was detained in North Korea for three months. Initially they said that they would release him if he helped with drug trafficking, but when he said no they asked for an absurd ransom amount. In the end, we agreed on a smaller amount and he was released upon payment.
- Do you have any comments or thoughts you’d like to offer regarding either situation or overall? Please feel free to share any comments.
I traveled to the China-North Korea border anywhere from 2-4 times a month on average. The first time I heard about the journalists, I remember being in shock and quickly said a prayer for their release. The second thought that came to mind was, “That could have been me.” It’s an awful situation to be in and Lisa Ling in her Larry King interview commented on how scared her sister sounded when she talked to her on the phone. The two journalists need the support of this nation at this time.