Fifteen Year Anniversary: An Interview with Mike Kim

- This post was written by Dan Chung, Executive Director of Crossing Borders. 

We had been meeting for a couple of years without a name in the early 2000s to work toward a target we didn’t quite see. It was a group of college friends who had a passion to help North Koreans. Mike Kim (author of the book, “Escaping North Korea” and co-founder of Crossing Borders) and I sat at a bookstore on a cold Chicago morning in 2003 tossing names around. Nothing stuck.

Then, as luck would have it, one of us realized where we were meeting. Yes, it was a Borders bookstore. The word ‘borders’ was and is an essential part of our work. North Korean refugees were crossing a border into China for help and we were crossing many other borders to help. Crossing Borders. It felt right.

Five years ago on our 10-year anniversary, this memory did not seem so far away. Today it does. First of all, Borders Bookstores is now a thing of the past. Secondly, after getting married, having children and being a part of too many stories to recount, 2003 does seem like a long time ago.

One January 1, 2018, Crossing Borders celebrated our 15th anniversary. Over the years we have helped about 1,000 North Korean refugees and orphans with vital resources and protections. As a part of the original team, I can say without hesitation that we are still pursuing this work with the same vitality and excitement as when we first started. The only difference is that we’re a lot wiser now.

I wish I could peel back the curtain on all of it and share with you what an incredible ride it has been. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to. For now, I want to share a conversation I had with Mike Kim as we reminisced about the past 15 years.

We thank God for all the memories and for all the people who have helped in big and small ways. You are always near our hearts. 

The End of the Korean War and The North Korean Refugee Crisis

The Arch of Reunification located south of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

The Arch of Reunification located south of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

The two Koreas recently announced that they will be coming to the negotiating table at Panmunjom, or Peace Village. National leaders will be convening in a building that straddles the two Koreas, one used for high-level negotiations. On the table is an order of business that many say is long overdue: a peace treaty that would signal the official end to the Korean War.

The promise of this treaty would be far reaching for everyday North Koreans and even North Korean refugees. But experts say that such a treaty would require more than one meeting and also complicated by many factors.

Lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula could mean an end to the starvation of the North Korean people. The UN reported last year that about two in five North Koreans are malnourished and 70 percent of the country’s citizens rely on food aid. Putting a stop to the pressing burden of hunger in the North Korean population could furthermore spell an end to the North Korean refugee crisis, as a major concern of defectors could be solved with reliable, sustainable resources.

But it is important to remember that many potential solutions to the problem of hunger are currently unavailable to the North as the Korean War never came to an official end. The three-year conflict from 1950 to 1953 ended with a truce, not a peace treaty. The truce was a simple agreement that stated that both sides would cease combat. A peace treaty, as opposed to the ongoing armistice, would require more involvement from both Koreas as well as many hours of negotiation on controversial issues such as sovereignty and land.

“Whatever they call it: a peace declaration, a peace accord, even a peace treaty — it doesn’t mean we will all wake up and Korea is at peace,” said John Delury, an associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul told the New York Times. “It’s significant, but it’s embedded in a process. I would imagine the two Koreas can do something on their own to declare their own commitment to peace.”

But many factors and forces could stop such open signs of good will in their tracks. Take for example North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. The country’s leaders have repeatedly signaled willingness to denuclearize only to break their promises in spectacular shows of force and open aggression. Both South Korea and the U.S. have recently said that peace would only be possible and sustainable if North Korea denuclearizes.

Some experts say that North Korea’s current motivations are not for peace but for war.

“Dictator Kim Jong Un’s move comes straight out of the rogue-regime playbook: Offer peace to distract from preparations for war,” wrote Michael Rubin of the conservative American Enterprise Institute think-tank for the New York Post. “That it repeatedly works reflects the naiveté of Western officials, for whom history begins anew with every administration.”

China is another complicating factor. China is a close ally to North Korea and has grave concerns about a U.S. presence on the Korean Peninsula, even as a peacekeeping force. China has been North Korea’s main benefactor and has represented up to 70 percent of North Korea’s economy. It is possible that a peaceful cooperation between the Koreas, which may eventually open opportunities for the West to enter into countries so close to China’s borders, would be an unwelcome thorn in China’s side.

With so much riding on potential peace between North and South Korea, it is easy to get swept up with the dream of peace and stability. No one knows what will happen next. The best we can do is hope and pray that the events that unfold in the next few months will result in progressive steps toward lasting peace for all people in the region.

"I wish I can go back for a day"

Nam Gyu Hyeong doubts he will ever be able to go back to his hometown in North Korea [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

Nam Gyu Hyeong doubts he will ever be able to go back to his hometown in North Korea [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

Part two of Al Jazeera's series on North Korean defectors features 81-year-old Nam Gyu Hyeong who fled as a 14-year-old student during the Korean War and worked his way up as a lawyer.

"It was 1950 and I was a 14-year-old student. The US military was stationed near my town near Hyesan city in North Korea. One afternoon, me, my 40-year-old cousin, his son and some seniors from school hopped on a military truck. We made it as far as the Geoje Island south of Busan where we were kept in a refugee camp for a year." 

In contrast to other defectors, Nam never felt alienated in his new country, but rather felt grateful for the aid of locals - a family who took him in, a police chief, and business partners. 

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"South Korea has been really nice to me. It's given me so much and I feel happy. I wish I can go back for a day and see my hometown but I doubt much of my family is left. I just want to see what has changed and what life is like now. But I doubt that would be possible."

Listen to the full interview here: