North Korean Defectors Faced Starvation, Forced Labor Raising Awareness of Immense Suffering

By Kay Youngstrom ’19

Over the 10 summers that I have spent in Seoul, South Korea, while my parents taught at Korea University, I have been exposed to the conflict and history of the Korean peninsula in a variety of ways. Visiting the Demilitarized Zone and the War Memorial of Korea have been just as poignant as being the only American passing by a demonstration protesting Otto Warmbier’s wrongful death.

Kay Youngstrom '19

The summary statistics used to describe the plight of the North Korean people fall short of conveying the immense suffering. Through my work with People for Successful COrean REunification (PSCORE), over the past five summers, I heard firsthand accounts about the hardships of life in North Korea. I quickly became a friend to the defectors. Instead of hiding their true identities for fear of discrimination, they discussed their North Korean heritage while learning English. While tutoring defectors and attending numerous outreach events, I learned of the arduous and dangerous routes of defection they endured for the hope of freedom. The emotion with which defectors recounted periods of starvation and forced labor helped me to understand the gravity of these abuses.

Instead of letting the magnitude of the crisis prevent me from addressing it, I decided to raise awareness about what was happening in North Korea. My sister, Diane Youngstrom ’17 — now a student at UNC-Chapel Hill — and I helped organize multiple speech events at which defectors could share their stories and answer any lingering questions by audience members. These speech events were a place where North Koreans’ voices were heard by students from about 60 countries in an international summer program. I invited people I met in the lobby of my hotel and the members of my research lab to attend the events. These symposia were a way that I could help develop a more informed understanding with a diverse group.

When I was a ninth-grader, Diane and I co-founded a club that works with PSCORE to educate Durham Academy students about North Korea. Through club discussions and fundraising, I have fostered a conversation in my local community that addresses political and social issues in North Korea. The perspectives of my peers have challenged me to think about the situation in new ways.

I was encouraged to promote human rights in North Korea on a much larger stage than tutoring, advocacy and fundraising. Along with Diane, I participated in an event at the United Nations in New York City as part of the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in October 2018. This event included remarks by Ambassador Jonathan Cohen, deputy representative of the United States to the United Nations, as well as speeches by two North Korean defectors (Jung Gwang-il, a former political prisoner, and Roh Hoi-Chang, who served as the central party secretary of the External Construction Supervision Bureau).

PSCORE has consultative status from the United Nations Economic and Social Council, and they invited us to attend as part of PSCORE's 15-member delegation in New York. In addition to the event at the United Nations, we participated in meetings with the EU Delegation, Korea Society and a meeting of American lawyers for North Korean human rights to discuss the UN resolutions about human rights issues in North Korea.

I have been involved in DA’s Model United Nations since the seventh grade. I served as co-chair for the World Health Organization committee for the 2015–2016 Triangle Model United Nations Conference for Middle School Students, and I mentored the DA Middle School Model UN club. Due to my longstanding interest in Model United Nations and United Nations, it was exciting to witness global leaders come together at the United Nations Headquarters to address egregious human rights abuses.

Read about Kay Youngstrom’s tutoring work with North Korean defectors in South Korean newspaper The Dong-A Ilbo.

Learn more about how you can help PSCORE — which anticipates hosting defector talks in the U.S. and selling their books about human rights abuses to raise awareness and funds.

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