Queen’s HanVoice supports North Korean defectors’ resettlement efforts in Canada

Museum portrays citizens’ resistance against North Korean regime

The exhibit intends to mimic a typical North Korean living room.
Credit: 
Supplied by Pat Ryder
Propoganda and a television set in a typical North Korean living room.
Credit: 
Supplied by Pat Ryder

A pop-up museum in Toronto offered a snapshot of North Korean life beyond the country’s missile tests and strongman dictator.

HanVoice, a non-profit organization that resettles North Korean defectors in Canada, created the People’s Museum of North Korea pop-up. The exhibit was held in Toronto’s Stackt Market from July 3 to 24.

HanVoice has a specific chapter at Queen’s, which works to educate students on North Korean issues.

“This is as close as you can get to seeing what the lives of everyday North Korean people are like,” Adam El-Sherbini, HealthSci ’25 and co-president of HanVoice’s Queen’s chapter, said in an interview with The Journal.

HanVoice collaborated with artists who escaped North Korea to reconstruct a quintessential living room from their home country, complete with various devices citizens use daily to resist the regime’s control—including radios, jailbroken smartphones, and rice cookers.

With floral couches on the ground and government propaganda on the walls, the People’s Museum intends to accurately portray North Korean lifestyle.

“[The North Korean regime] is an extremely secretive government that focuses on the perception of its people,” El-Sherbini said.“It’s hard to understand their living situation because the government works so hard to not let that information get out.”

Canadians see the occasional news headline on the country—perhaps about a missile test or a provocative comment from leader Kim Jong-un—but that’s about it, El-Sherbini said.

El-Sherbini said North Korea repels all outside information. Last November, a North Korean man was sentenced to death for distributing copies of the popular Netflix show Squid Game. One teenage buyer received life imprisonment, while another allegedly eluded punishment by way of a $3,000 USD bribe.

Illegal material” is smuggled into the country on foot when rivers between China and North Korea freeze over. In underground markets, thumb drives containing foreign media are sold alongside unlocked radios and smartphones, according to El-Sherbini. 

“The purpose of the museum is to show the extent [North Koreans] have to go to be able to access everyday information that you or I would be able to see, hear, and talk about,” El-Sherbini said. 

According to El-Sherbini, the frozen trade routes formed so necessities such as food could be smuggled in after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90s.

An ensuing famine caused the death of an estimated 10 per cent of the population between 1994 and 1998. Now, the country of 26 million may be on the brink of another famine.

“A lot of Canadians do not understand the magnitude of the situation,” El-Sherbini said. 

Millions of people face the wrath of the North Korean regime, he continued.

“The number of people that try to escape, that die at the border, that get imprisoned for speaking against [the government], that go to South Korea or China and are unable to work or treated badly—the numbers are what people don’t see.”

A record low of 63 North Koreans successfully fled to South Korea in 2021. Down from 2,706 defectors in 2011, this figure has steadily decreased since Kim took office in 2012.

North Korea’s pandemic border tightening included a shoot-on-sight policy for anyone drifting too close to the dividing line.

Those who do make it out often feel isolated—their distinct accent and drastically different lived experiences distinguish them from others. Many have trouble integrating into a new society, El-Sherbini said.

HanVoice helps North Korean refugees resettle in Canada through a privately funded sponsorship program that solicits Canadian families’ help with everything from meal preparation to income tax support. All proceeds from the pay-what-you-want People’s Museum were directed to this program.

The non-profit has moved five families into Canada over the last two years and plans to continue.

“When you look at how hard it is to escape, you begin to recognize that five—even one—is a great accomplishment,” El-Sherbini said.

“Unfortunately, it's very difficult and it's beyond the non-profit organizations to be able to change North Korea's regime […] We are very focused on the people.”

During his time at Queen’s HanVoice, El-Sherbini has helped organize a joint event with the McMaster and Ottawa chapters at which a North Korean defector spoke to students from the three universities. HanVoice has also run documentary screenings on campus and fundraised for the People’s Museum. 

“What we're trying to do at Queen's HanVoice is educate people,” he said. “I learned so much.”

El-Sherbini and other Co-President Emily Lee, HealthSci ’25, are planning a HanVoice health conference in the fall. They hope to bring in Queen’s professors and health professionals to speak about mental and physical health, as well as malnutrition, through a North Korean lens.

“What's happening in North Korea is not limited to North Korea, it’s limited to everybody. It's a social problem that as humans we should all care for.”

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