Lee Hark-joon, a journalist for South Korea’s largest newspaper who’s now in England working on another project, answered some questions from The Washington Post about his work and his book “Crossing Heaven’s Border”.
WP: First up, kudos to you. You lived among North Koreans on and off for years, taking many of the same risks they did. What motivated you to go above and beyond the call of duty like this?
LHJ: In 2007, my boss suggested that I do a piece about the human rights situation of North Korean defectors. At that time, reporting related to North Korean defectors was mostly done by international media, but my boss pointed out it was an issue about our nation so South Korean media needed to take charge of the issue.
It’s an issue about real people. I was thrilled to cross borders with defectors and see them finally find freedom. I often wonder if the purpose of my education and becoming a journalist was to feel this joy.
I wasn’t able to help the defectors but they helped me. When we were crossing the border between China and Laos, our group included a woman in her 60s and a boy. We embarked on a journey walking 18 hours in the mountains. I was so worried that someone in the group may not be able to make it but I was sure of myself as I had completed my military service. Surprisingly, I was the one who began to fall behind.
The North Koreans’ passion for life and freedom helped them overcome their age and physical disadvantages. I was holding the group back so I asked them to leave me and go on. For them, being captured could lead to their repatriation to North Korea, but for me, my punishment would just be spending some time in Chinese prison.
But they didn’t leave me. They said they couldn’t abandon a journalist, a Korean like them. They carried my bags and pulled me by my hand and we finally crossed the border together. Maybe this kind of experience, relying on each other and meeting people who care for others, kept me going and working on this issue for such a long time.
I consider North Korean defectors as “the Jews of Asia.” It’s been a long time since the Holocaust but the world remembers it. It should be the same for North Korean defectors. …. I hope more attention will be given to them until their misery is over.
[Washington Post blog]