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I’ve been keeping an eye on what’s going on in North Korea over the past few years. The regime change and missile tests have kept it as a topic of current affairs, but I’m more interested in the huge influx of North Korean defectors seeking asylum in South Korea over the past few decades (about 25,000 since 1998). The numbers have recently dropped through tighter border control since the passing of the Supreme leadership to Kim Jong-Un last year.
My interests in the social acceptance and adjustment to South Korean life of the defectors led me to Hyuk Kang, a young defector whose childhood and escape is written in This is Paradise! He had illustrations documenting his childhood in the memoir and I included his new work in the 38° of Separation exhibition, which was part of the Asia Triennial Manchester 2011. He’s now an art student in his sophomore year at Hongik University, the top art school in South Korea. Through him and the Citizen’s Alliance for North Korean Human Rights I was able to meet Joseph Park, a North Korean defector currently living in South Korea, when I was in South Korea last month.
I’d initially met him to find out more about grass-roots community activities for defectors and native South Koreans, conducting research for the Asia Triennial next year. A self described entrepreneur, I was inspired by his energy and range of activities (talk show, music video, activism) to promote understanding between the two peoples. He found the lack of interest from South Koreans frustrating, but strives to create common ground nationally and internationally. He was very interested in MadLab, particularly the workshops around new technology (especially the Raspberry Pi). Planning a trip to the UK, he’s agreed to add Manchester as a destination point, and will be coming to MadLab to give a presentation. Private business, such as the trade in this roadside market in Chongdan County in southwestern North Korea, in is an essential aspect of livelihood for most people in the country today. Photo by Moravius.
Joseph will talk about marketisation (the process that enables state-owned enterprises to act like market-oriented firms) in North Korea, the hidden economy and distribution sector through his direct experience of living in North Korea and extra studies since defecting.
Infamously described as one of the Axis of evil (2002) by George W. Bush, the totalitarian dictatorship of North Korean government is under UN sanctions. As the North Korean won has no value outside of it’s own country, the government have come up with creative methods to bring in foreign currency into the country. These include legitimate trade activities such as tourism, leasing natural resources to China, Kaesong industrial region (joint economic venture with South Korea) and selling gigantic statues to foreign leaders. They also deal in illicit activities like manufacturing and trafficking illegal drugs, weapons trade and counterfeiting US dollars.
Joseph will share examples of marketisation and focus on the policies affecting these processes, system change, and the behavior patterns of the various economic participants responding to these changes.
Written by Hwa Young Jung
Joseph was born in 1981 as the youngest son in a large working class family. His father made a living as a factory worker while his mother stayed home to take care of the children. Growing up, Joseph knew little of the outside world. After reading Robinson Crusoe at the age of 13, Joseph dreamed of becoming the captain of a trading ship and traveling the world. However, during high school he realized he would not be able to realize his dream in North Korea due to his status within the hierarchical society that rewards ancestral loyalty and patriotic action dating back to the anti-Japanese Independence movement and Korean War.
As Joseph grew older, he saw tragedies unfold as North Korea was struck by a widespread famine. An estimated one to two million people died of starvation in the span of a few years. People were left to fend for themselves as political elites received their portion.
Driven by hunger, Joseph began to trade in the black market. He frequently traveled to all ends of North Korea trading foreign goods for food. As he traveled around the country, his eyes were opened as he saw the lifeless bodies lay alongside the roads and the trains. In that moment, he knew that there had to be more than the kind of future that was before him. He then made the decision to leave his country. To protect his family, he left without saying good-bye. Joseph made it safely to China in 1999 and worked for several years before he was able to travel on to South Korea. He worked as a shepherd for a year while studying the Chinese language secretly so that he could survive on his own. After that he worked for a smuggling organization that would move Japanese cars illegally from North Korea to China. He also worked as a hotel manager for three years.
However, Joseph realized his status in China was too dangerous as he could be forcibly repatriated if caught by the Chinese police and face severe punishment. In 2003 he began to use the Internet to ask for assistance to international aid workers that would help him get out of China safely, and it was through one of these contacts that he was able to escape.
Today, Joseph is actively working to prepare for the reunification of Korea through entrepreneurship. He hopes to develop North Korea through business and trade, using inclusive business models, so North Korean people and communities can be productive and prepared for reunification. Inspired by the Mondragon Cooperative in Spain, he hopes to implement similar concepts while working with the international community for the development of North Korea. Currently, Joseph is also producing a documentary on North Korean defectors’ lives in South Korea.
Joseph Park is a visionary and founder of the Dream Tree non-profit organization. He studied veterinary medicine at Konkuk University in Seoul and graduated in 2013. He has previously worked with Google Ideas as an organizer for its Illicit Networks: Forces in Opposition (INFO) Summit in 2012. His other accomplishments include founding the Diaspora Young Adult Forum and Wish2b1.
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