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How Meeting North Korean Defectors Changed My Life

I first unexpectedly met a North Korean defector while studying abroad at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in South Korea during the spring of 2014. I did not know it at the time, but my future interactions with North Korean defectors would forever change the course of my education, professional aspirations, and approach to politics.


Near the end of the semester, our professor invited a former U.S. diplomat specializing in U.S.-DPRK relations to present on North Korea’s ongoing humanitarian crisis and systematic human rights abuses. During the Q&A session, a student poised a question which still rings clear in my ears seven years later, “Has North Korea really not changed at all since the late 90s?” The question itself did not invoke any unique reaction, but the melancholy tone of her voice added a heaviness to the classroom atmosphere. The former diplomat responded in a curt, but sympathetic tone, “No. I am afraid the human rights situation has only worsened under Kim Jong Un.” I spotted our professor giving the student a slight nod, indicating his approval and encouragement as she took a deep breath and spoke, “I am asking because I am from North Korea and I do not know if my friends back home are still alive.” The class went silent. All the South Korean students brandished mixed expressions of fear and confusion, fundamentally torn as they discovered that our classmate was from the enemy state of North Korea.


As one of the only foreigners in the class, I could feel the division of the two Koreas settle within the room, recalling how one male student recently cursed North Korea for, in his words, wasting two years of his life in the South Korean army due to the mandatory conscription law. However, the atmosphere gradually lightened as she explained how and why she fled North Korea for a better life which brought tears to nearly every student in the room. The reunification of the Korean Peninsula is often discussed in terms of complete economic, geographical, and/or political fusion of the two Koreas which seems to drift farther away each year as the gap between them continues to deepen. But at that moment, I believed I witnessed a more attainable, authentic, and humanistic form of reunification between the two Korean peoples: empathy between South Korean nationals and North Korean defectors. Although unaware at the time, that moment forever changed my life.


Fast forward to 2021, I am now a researcher at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a national security thinktank in Washington D.C., where I primarily conduct research on global proliferation finance networks, sanctions evasions, and financial technology-related security threats with a regional focus on North Korea, Venezuela, and Iran. However, I strive to incorporate the angle of human rights into my research and publications whenever possible. I believe that any foreigner working on North Korean issues who has interacted with defectors has an ethical responsibility to include a human rights approach within their research. Since a considerable amount of public data on North Korea is derived from interviewing defectors, we should give credit where and when it is due.


My second major interaction with North Korean defectors was when I volunteered as an American English pronunciation and conversation instructor at a North Korean human rights NGO in Seoul called Mulmangcho - Dream Makers for North Korea in 2019. Despite the 45-minute commute from my tiny, one room “apartment” in Sinchon, I looked forward to volunteering my time every week. I had the privilege of teaching a group of North Korean defector students my native language in their mother tongue of Korean, a language which I studied intensely at three different institutions for over six years. I will never forget their hilarious expressions as they witnessed a miguknom, a pejorative term for Americans, introducing himself and his course curriculum in Korean.


In South Korea, English plays a major role in the success of the younger generation. The upper class often monopolizes opportunities to intensively study English through their access to prestigious tutoring centers and expensive overseas boarding schools, resulting in significant inequality in education and income. Although Korean is the only official language of South Korea, English proficiency is equally weighed in college entrance exams along with Korean and mathematics. While South Korea struggles with its own income and socioeconomic disparities, North Korean defectors are at a significant disadvantage to their South Korean peers. In North Korea, only the elite social echelons are allowed to attend schools teaching foreign languages and advanced sciences commonly taught in most South Korean public schools. This ‘English dilemma’ also extends into how the international community analyzes North Korea since most English-speaking experts researching the country do not possess Korean language fluency, and often rely on secondary sources. My previous experiences and interactions with North Korean defector students strengthened my motivation to leverage my bilingualism as a tool to ensure that North Korean defectors remain at the center of discussion.


While spending years abroad in the region and coupling linguistic expertise with functional experience may have contributed to my understanding of the Korean Peninsula, directly engaging with North Korean defectors has given me the opportunity to view North Korea through a humanistic lens, revealing more than a rogue state filled with nuclear weapons and cybercriminals. All I brought to Korea was genuine curiosity and a humble interest to learn, and I was met with kindness from the most unlikely of people.

The author provided an image of several messages received from his North Korean defector students in Seoul.

Written by Jason Bartlett


Jason Bartlett is a Research Assistant for the Energy, Economics, and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) researching global proliferation finance networks, sanctions evasion tactics, and fintech-related security threats with a regional focus on North Korea, Venezuela, and Iran. He also leads the program’s Sanctions by the Numbers series research and development. Prior to CNAS, he worked at several North Korean human rights NGOs including Mulmangcho – Dream Makers for North Korea, the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC), and Liberty in North Korea (LiNK).