By JFNK volunteers Brandon Hansen. Photography by Dustin Cole.
Peter Jung was working as a missionary in China in 1998 when he first witnessed waves of North Korean defectors being repatriated back to the country they had risked their lives escaping. Appalled, he found he could no longer stand the injustice and decided to do something to help. Regardless of the consequences, he quietly began helping the refugees to freedom.
On weekends and holidays he would travel to the Chinese-North Korean border, and it was there that he started meeting defectors, mostly women and children. After some time, he was invited to one of the secret shelters housing defectors hiding from Chinese authorities. During his visits, he would tutor the defectors in language, computer skills and the Bible.
Jung eventually decided to take it a step further and sneak the defectors into the South Korean consulate in Beijing, specifically women who were pregnant and people who were sick. This was in 2003 during the SARS outbreak, and he decided he needed to get them out of China as soon as possible.
It was during one of his attempts to sneak the defectors into the consulate when he was arrested and put in jail in China for more than a year. His captors forced him to undergo sleep deprivation and other forms of torture.
But his fight was far from finished. He returned to South Korea, where he founded Justice for North Korea to raise awareness about all he had witnessed and help ease the suffering of the North Korean refugees, who often live furtive half lives in shelters as they await the chance to escape. In the meantime, they risk being trafficked in China or detained in labor camps if caught, before being sent back to the North.
“The struggles of the North Korean defectors and stateless children are not a South Korean problem, but the world’s problem,” said Jung, a Korean national. “Support is needed from Koreans and foreigners alike.”
Founded in 2007, the group is a non-religious, non-governmentalal organization that actively opposes the ongoing human rights violations committed against the North Korean refugees.
Right before the start of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the group made its presence known by holding a 444-day demonstration in front of embassies and consulates in 13 countries throughout Asia and Europe, including China, Japan and South Korea. The group’s aim was to bring global attention to the Chinese government’s illegal repatriation of North Korean refugees – actions that violate China’s obligations under the 1951 United Nations Convention related to the Status of Refugees.
Today, the group works in collaboration with NGOs all over the world to accomplish its goals. It continues to focus on helping defectors, primarily children and teenagers, escape China and repatriate safely in another country. Despite the considerable danger to himself, Jung continues to travel to other countries, predominantly to East Asia along the Chinese border, to rescue defectors, and then personally takes them to embassies.
“Regardless of North or South, we are all Korean; and unification of the Korean Peninsula cannot take place until there is justice. And justice cannot happen until human rights are restored to all,” he said.
Aside from Jung, the group’s membership consists of expats and South Koreans working side by side.
Member Vivvi Pierce said she sought out JFNK because, “it is a small group of passionate people with an overwhelming commitment to speaking out against policies and governments, assisting North Korean defectors and spreading awareness of North Korean human rights violations.”
When she was in graduate school, she studied security issues in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, primarily Chechnya and Afghanistan.
“It was during this time that I was exposed to some horrendous human rights violations and became interested in activism,” Pierce said. “After moving to Seoul, I really wanted to get involved in issues pertaining to North Korea and help spread awareness about the heinous wrongdoings happening there. I hope to take what I have learned through my volunteer experience here at JFNK and use it throughout a lifetime of activism.”
Should defectors find themselves in South Korea, the group has established tutoring and mentoring programs; programs that help young people obtain the necessary skills to put them on a path to a healthy and stable future. The group also contributes to several shelters in China, one that it fully supports, that provide a safe haven for defectors and stateless children from Chinese authorities.
There is still, however, far more that can be done. The group still needs more volunteers looking to get involved with fundraising, translating, editing and advocacy. There are also opportunities for social media volunteers and street team campaigners.
The campaigners will likely be familiar to people who have visited the tourist neighbourhood of Insa-dong in central Seoul. There, they stage regular street theater demonstrations that imagine the situation a defector might face if captured, with one person playing the role of a defector, another a North Korean guard and one more a Chinese guard. Caught between the Chinese policy of forcible repatriation of defectors and the prospect of being sent to a prison camp in the North, the defector is shown in an impossible situation. After a short hiatus, the demonstrations will start again this month and there are more planned for the spring.
The group will be hosting a fundraiser and holiday party at Dillinger’s Bar in Itaewon on Dec. 15. The event offers entertainment, a raffle and loads of holiday spirit, as well as a chance to get to know more about the group and its mission.
As Jung said of the event, “It is your support and ideas that will pave the path to a better life for the defectors. Your support will finally stop the appalling treatment and countless human rights abuses toward the North Korean refugees.”