Audrey Park was 10 years old when she escaped on foot from North Korea.
The journey was rigorous and emotional. Her mother was by her side, painfully aware of the fate they had faced the last three times they attempted to escape. Threats of deportation back to North Korea and labour camps lingered in her memory. But the two walked on.
On Nov. 12, Park delivered her testimonial in Kingston, speaking to a crowd in Macdonald Hall about the realities of defecting from a totalitarian regime.
The event was coordinated by the Queen’s chapter of HanVoice, a non-profit organization based in Toronto that focuses on advancing for North Korean refugees.
The Queen’s chapter of HanVoice was founded at the beginning of this year by President Danny Yeo, ArtSci ’17.
After working at a law firm over the past summer, where he listened to the stories of several North Korean defectors, Yeo reached out to HanVoice. Through his work and South Korean heritage, Yeo developed a personal attachment to the cause. “I wanted to act,” he said.
The event kicked off with guest speaker Sarah Pavan, a PhD candidate in the department of political studies, discussing the current state of global refugee affairs. Pavan’s research has focused in on immigrant integration services and organizations.
Professor Margaret Moore, having sponsored a Syrian family and young man, shared her experience next about the Canadian immigration system. Moore was critical of the procedure that resulted in her sponsored family arriving unexpectedly following the holidays, and felt frustrated with the difficulty she faced while accessing community resources for them.
Park was the final speaker for the event. She started her story at the beginning, in Heoryong, North Korea, where she was born in 1989. As she grew into childhood, the country began to slip into the famine of the 90s.
Beginning in 1998, Park and her mother left her sister and father behind, bribing a soldier to cross the border into China. Over the next seven years, the pair lived in China and attempted to flee into South Korea, but were caught three times and deported back to North Korea.
For their offense, they were placed in labour camp detention.
Park recalled witnessing tremendous hunger and exhaustion in the labour camp as well as brutal treatment from the camp guards. Park’s mother, who served her sentence doing construction work, didn’t give up her resolve and currently lives in South Korea.
“She was my rock,” Park said. She reiterated her mother’s support as a key factor for her survival. “She kept telling me to live.” Park also delivered an emotional memory of her mother from when they were split upon arriving in China. “I cried all night.”
To her, the popular media portrayal of North Korea is damaging. “People are making fun of Kim Jong-un, but that’s not funny to me,” she told the crowd.
Following Park’s story, a short panel discussion was held, featuring Park, and other members of the Queen’s HanVoice chapter. When asked whether democracy was possible in the future, Park responded that “before democracy, we have to empower the people.”
Members of the audience were given time to ask Park their own questions. Among them, a Korean War veteran shared his own experience during the 50s and 60s in the country. The two jointly drew on their experiences to compare Cold War Korea with that of the modern era.
Park is currently participating in the HanVoice Pioneers Project as their Pioneer for 2016, working with Canadian Parliament member Senator Yonah Martin to gain knowledge concerning democracy and policy making in democratic countries.
HanVoice ended their 2016 Campus Tour at Queen’s this week following visits to their other chapters at Western Univeristy, University of Toronto and York University earlier this month.
While her story is significant, Park noted that it’s important for people to focus on the issues surrounding North Korea as a whole “I’m not special,” she said. “My story’s not unique.”
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