Raising Consciousness
The 444-day demonstration against North Korean repatriation continues
Email Article  Print Article Colin Moore (Colin89)    
ⓒ2007 Nayan Sthankiya
They're setting up at the far end of Insadong, a short jog from Changgyeonggung Palace even with the heavy lungs an August in Seoul, South Korea, can conjure up. It's a small group armed with costumes, ropes, mock-up automatic weapons, placards and a purpose. "No Olympics in Beijing Without Human Rights for North Koreans" -- written on two separate poster boards, one in Korean, the other in English. In fact, most of the banners are bilingual. It reflects the backgrounds of the group's participants, though more so perhaps the idea that this isn't just a domestic problem.

The event is organized by Justice for North Korea (JFNK) with the aim of protesting the repatriation of North Korean refugees by Chinese authorities. Given the forthcoming Beijing Olympics though, and the spirit of brotherhood that it implies, more than a few of the concerned detect an added hypocrisy in the air. They see it as even more reason to spread the message. So for yet another Saturday, JFNK's international coordinator is playing dual roles as both activist and actor to get the point across: "Right now, as you know, Korean people are not really aware of the serious situation in North Korea especially the North Korean human rights violations. So what we are hoping is that what we are doing will at least make a small difference to raise the public awareness."

But as they say, it's not what you say, but how you say it. Insadong is essentially a kilometer long souvenir stand, a string of traditional teahouses, restaurants and gift shops with one of the higher foreigner-to-Korean ratios outside of Itaewon and perhaps the club-riddled Hongdae. International attention is unavoidable. They begin in late afternoon, making their way toward the busier Jongro end in the form of a peaceful march. But it's far from subtle. Accompanying the expected chanting and procession is a dramatization: three North Korean refugees are being forcibly dragged back to their country by Chinese police. The captives are plain-clothed females, tied by the wrists and blindfolded via black bags over their heads. Whatever the path to theatrical truth in their misery, it's incredibly life-like. They beg their captors for mercy, but the Chinese police aren't listening. Whatever their prisoners are asking for, they're not budging.

ⓒ2007 Nayan Sthankiya
ⓒ2007 Nayan Sthankiya
There's not a riot cop in sight. A Secom security guard is the closest thing to law enforcement passing through the area, not that it's needed. This demonstration is nowhere close to causing civil unrest, but it's turning heads. "There are 300,000 refugees hiding in China. Everyday hundreds of North Koreans are sent back to imprisonment, torture and summary executions in North Korea. Do not let China have a free pass to the Olympics," says Helping Hands Korea founder Tim Peters, who occasionally takes the microphone and gives the crowd the English translation of the day's objective. Since its inception in 1990, Helping Hands Korea has put hope into practice for North Korean's by providing refugee support, underground railroad assistance and famine relief for citizens both at home and in hiding.

From what Peters explains of their current mission, it's one with big hopes but realistic expectations: "I don't think our long term goal is media attention here because there is really no mainstream big media. If you look at the demographics it's really the young people that tend to have a very indifferent attitude toward the whole issue of North Korea, North Korean human rights or the refugees, and that's largely a factor and function of their age and the things they're facing. But when it's played out in a dramatic form like this, you can see that the average Korean young person does have a conscience. They really are struck, deeply to their hearts about the plight of the refugees as acted out, being dragged through the streets by someone dressed as a Chinese policeman. It's extremely effective."

Based on reactions from the crowd, it's accurate. Dozens of point-and-shooters snap off what pictures they can, but for the most part the march is getting thoughtful looks. The odd reveler takes their weekend fun in a different direction. Others come upon the scene rattled, until they realize what it is they're watching. One young European tourist has been following the demonstration from the start: "Human rights in North Korea is a very important issue. They have a point. China is a member of a U.N. resolution, and shouldn't send refugees back to be tortured." The resolution is the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which China became a signatory in 1982. It speaks of obligations to protect refugees, and not to expel or repatriate those whose lives or freedoms could be compromised by doing so. Beyond putting ink to paper though are what many call hollow actions on the part of China. By shaking off words like "political refugee" in favor of "illegal immigrants" or "economic migrants," the current wave of opinion is that Beijing fears possible instability by taking actions that could encourage larger groups of refugees to stream across its borders. That and the possible offense given to Pyongyang.

ⓒ2007 Nayan Sthankiya
Bound, the three girls cry and hug the broken bricked walk, occasionally each other. Before they've reached the halfway point they're worn down and approaching filthy. The activists playing the two Chinese police officers try to quiet them with mock blows from their rifle butts. It will never come close to leaving a mark, but for at least one member of the group, there might be more to this than improvisation. Tim gives more detail about one of the participants: "Not only was he a prisoner in a North Korean prison camp but he was born in one, and he lived his entire life there except for something like twenty days after he broke through and made his way to the Chinese border, so he's an extraordinary case. He's not acting at all. If anything he's being too restrained to the kind of treatment that he endured."

The group is a collection of Koreans from both sides of the border, helped along by foreigners with a common interest: what China isn't doing in respect to human rights issues. This is not a one-time affair though. The Insadong protest began 444 days before the scheduled 2008 Olympic kick off. It will continue each weekend until then. They're optimistic about any short-term progress. "There's not only just a momentary interest but some of these people have shown up a week or two later and picked up a banner, so I think there's real momentum," Tim explains during a break. He then relates the decision to use 4's with its connection to the word "death" (through similar pronunciation) in several Asian cultures: "It's highly symbolic because the North Korean refugees, when they're sent back by the Chinese authorities, it's almost certain they'll get long prison terms, some torture and some even summary executions."

They've reached the halfway point, meters away from the stretch of road running parallel to the Cheonggyecheon canal. After a short rest, the demonstration prepares to head back to its starting point. One of the girls has switched roles, from a refugee to a police officer. "We're going to repatriate you back to North Korea," she tells the two that are groveling on the roadside. Later, out of character, she's able to speak her own mind: "I hope that the next future president will be the one who can take care of the refugees and who can stand up for the human rights for the North Korean refugees in China and who can speak to the Chinese straight away." Tim reveals another wish: "I am very hopeful because it's these young people that have a bit of a barrier of 'Hey, that's not really for me,' or 'The North Koreans are not even our people,' but I think we're really aiming at the young people particularly, maybe 30 on down. They're the ones that have to be really activated into caring about the North Koreans."

A small boy in spectacles steps up to the action to see what's going on. Grown-ups at play. Many of the younger children who crack a smile at this flesh and blood street theater seem to lose them just as quickly, though not out of any visible fear. This one anyway, shows no apprehension. He watches with as much interest as any adult in the area, only closer. He moves in for a closer look, reading the placard, then looks from face to face, the way a dog mugs when it's looking to have something confirmed. No answers right now, so he turns back to the action. If he's wondering how it's going to end he'll have to wait like everyone else.

2007/08/19 오후 11:59
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