Young Attorney Who Turned to Face North Korea

[imText1]Lee Jee Hae, the current chief of planning for Democracy Network against North Korean Gulag (NK Gulag for short), had just passed the U.S. bar exam in 2009, guaranteeing herself affluence and social status as an international attorney, when she turned her back on the comfortable life that seemed assured and began working with former inmates of the North Korean system of political prison camps to bring about its dismantlement.

The obvious question is why she made this choice. Also, it is hard not to be curious about how she plans to bring about the end of the camps. So The Daily NK visited the NK Gulag office in Seoul late last week to find out.

– Why did you decide to start working for the dismantlement of the North Korean political prison camps?

Although unintentionally, “North Korea” used to come up in my life continuously. The first time I crossed paths with North Korea was during my graduate studies at the North Korea Human Rights Law Society. It was the first time I had come across the North Korean human rights issues. Until then, I don’t think I had really thought about North Korea at all. But after that, studying at law school in the U.S. or when I came back to Korea, I regularly had opportunities to meet North Korean defectors.

During my studies in the U.S., one North Korean defector came to the church I was attending to tell of his search for his daughter. In a separate case, when I was in Korea preparing to start work, a defector came up and said “thank you” to me. I later learned that he had deliberately sought me out after hearing that I was helping out with the work of NK Gulag. He said, “Thank you for your interest in North Korean human rights issues at a time when young people do not care.”

Listening to their stories during such encounters, I think I started to feel that “This is the road for me”. Afterwards, I visited Kim Tae Jin, the head of NK Gulag and told him I wanted to work here full-time.

– Does this mean that you have no intention of going back to work as an international attorney?

In conclusion, no. Being a lawyer wasn’t one of my childhood dreams. I am happy with having earned a license to practice law in the United States. The knowledge I came to acquire as a lawyer is helping me a lot in terms of working for the dismantlement of the North Korean political prison camps. I believe there still are many areas where I can use the knowledge I have acquired thus far, such as during my stint as a law consultant in the campaign to file a lawsuit against Kim Jong Il with the ICC.

– You are working as the chief of planning for NK Gulag. What kind of projects do you have in the works?

We are planning to expedite our “Campaign to Save Hye Won and Gyu Won.”

They are the children of Dr. Oh Gil Nam, who, after obtaining a doctorate in economics in Germany, was won over by a North Korean agent and subsequently moved to North Korea. In the 1980s, Oh had been active in the fight for South Korean democracy, which prompted the South Korean government to bar him from returning to the country, so a North Korean agent seized the opportunity to offer him tenure in one of the North’s universities. Oh was intrigued by the offer and went over to North Korea with his wife and children in December, 1985.

However, Oh was not placed in the field of economics; he was made an agent in charge of broadcasts directed towards South Korea for the National Democratic Front of South Korea (NDFSK). Having learned of the reality inside North Korea, Oh fled in 1992 during a mission in which he was required to win over other South Korean personnel. However, he was unable to save his wife and two daughters, who were put in Yodok Camp. This wrong choice by Oh had dire consequences for his children.

We are planning activities to save them.

– How will the project be implemented, and how much progress has been made so far?

At the moment, we are soliciting donations from people close to us by selling postcards at 1,000 won a piece saying “Let’s save Hye Won and Gyu Won together.” The project began last December, but already around 300 people have donated to the campaign.

Once we reach the 1,000 donations milestone, we will hold an official press conference to kick start the campaign, and our aim is to reach a million donors by the end of this year. It might seem absurd, but once we reach a million, we will send the postcards over to the North Korean authorities and demand the release of the children.

– Nevertheless, the chances of the children being freed seems quite slim.

I prefer to think of it not as a losing battle, but rather as a chance worth taking. Until now, press conferences on the subject of dismantling the political camps have been quite monotonic, with survivors presenting their accounts and so on. We realized, however, that the camps are not in the least bit affected by such efforts alone. We planned this project to make an effort to bring people out of them directly. Recently, there have been reports that Yodok Camp is not even releasing the people within the confines of its “revolutionary zone”, which is the place from which those prisoners who have done their time are supposed to be released. This is why it has become impossible to just wait for the people to come out.

In the former West Germany, the government had a history of obtaining the release of political prisoners that East Germany had in custody, and in Japan there were continuous efforts for the release of Megumi Yokota. Of course, Yokota did not make it back, but seven abductees did return to their home towns. Cases such as these would not have been possible without the initiative of the German and Japanese governments. However, the South Korean government is in a unique position, in that it is not able to get directly involved in such matters. Therefore, our organization intends to take on that role.

If we can make this a global issue, and develop it into a global campaign through continuous effort, I believe there is a good chance of success. NK Gulag will also participate in the 16th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in March as part of efforts to broaden the scope of our activities.

Our ultimate goal is to build a museum to remember those held in the North Korean political prison camps, much like the Holocaust Museum. We are having difficulties at the moment, but we will work towards that goal by hosting small exhibitions on the subject.