North Korean defectors educate DMZ tourists

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Clara Park makes her living introducing her homeland to tourists from around the world. But instead of trumpeting its attractions like an ambassador, the wife of a former North Korean party cadre shares what it is like to live on food waste and work for no pay in the reclusive state.

The 48-year-old is one of four North Korean defectors now working for Panmunjom Travel Centre, the only agency that offers tourists a meeting with a North Korean defector on a visit to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). Tourists are seated on child-sized furniture in a mock classroom adorned with portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, as a defector fields questions from the curious.

“Our defector staff have a sense of mission… They want to help bring about positive changes to their homeland,” says Kim Bong-ki, the agency’s owner. “That’s why they are sharing the reality in North Korea despite facing a certain level of danger.”

Park and her colleagues are part of a growing community of defectors who are increasingly vocal about the hunger and torture they experienced in North Korea.

Kim Ha-na, for instance, shared her odyssey while competing on the reality show Masterchef Korea. Lee Hyeon-seo made a mark at the global TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference last year, sharing her struggle with identity issues.

“I see tourists as my messengers. I hope they will walk away with a better understanding of my pain, and tell the world on my behalf about the necessity of reunification,” Park says. “I strongly believe reunification is the only way to stop the North Korean tragedy.”

The cool-headed Park escaped from the North in 2011, after plotting her route for more than two years without her husband’s knowledge. “I could not bring this up with him … We think very differently,” Park said in response to a tourist’s question on why she had left without her husband. He has since been forced into early retirement, according to Park’s friends from the North.

It spurred her to set off on a grueling five-month journey to South Korea via China and Thailand, taking with her only her teenage daughter and rat poison – in case they got caught. Their courage paid off. After surviving three months of grilling by South Korea’s intelligence officers – a procedure to weed out potential spies – they were inducted into their new capitalist home, and have been coping well.

[The Straits Times/ Asia News Network]

This entry was posted in by Grant Montgomery.

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