The academic work of Professor Clifton Emery, a lecturer at Seoul’s Yonsei University, focuses on the power that social groups and communities wield over the specter of child abuse, and as part of a wider study he is currently interviewing 200 North Korean defectors to examine the risks they face in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder and family violence.
This work has put him in contact with the underground railroad, a network of smugglers and NGOs working to bring North Koreans to safety via a shadowy route that snakes from China to Southeast Asia and finally to Seoul. Many of these refugees are women, who willingly sell themselves as brides to rural Chinese men and then wait, often bearing several children to their husbands, until the opportunity for escape presents itself.
It has also brought Emery close to the aid workers – a handful of Israelis among them – who help the process along. One of his closest Jewish friends these days is Yotam Polizer, the Israeli serving as Asia Director for the NGO IsraAid, which offers trauma care training and workshops. IsraAid has offered training to the counselors and therapists who serve as refugees’ first contacts when they make it to South Korea and to the government-run Hanowan Resettlement Center that sits in the hills south of Seoul. There, the refugees learn the bare bones of democracy, free speech, and capitalism. They are taught that they can say whatever they wish about their government and practice any religion they choose. It’s a paradigm shift of massive proportions.
This evening two dozen aid workers and psychology students gather together in a lecture hall to discuss the intricacies of trauma and how they can identify, salve and treat the emotional wounds of shell-shocked North Korean defectors. Much of that work focuses on nonverbal treatment, be it through art, music, or movement, allowing survivors of the North Korean regime to express themselves without the burden of a written record.
Such a cross-section of humanitarians, Emery says, is typical. “The people doing the work and defectors themselves are all over the map politically,” he says. “You have fundamentalist Christians and you have very secular professional Western organizations and you have IsraAid. What we share in common is a sense of the absolute urgency of this crisis.”
It’s really a question, Emery says, of how much we believe in the term “never again.” He says, “I grew up hearing stories of the Holocaust and hoping that if I had been alive at that time I would have had the moral fortitude to do something. I simply cannot look myself in the mirror and not do something. It’s just a very simple response of the heart.”
[Times of Israel]Tags: north korea, PTSD, refugees, Underground Railroad