Bio: Trevor J. Fairlie is the Director of Policy on the HanVoice Development Committee, and is the President of HanVoice’s York Chapter. He is a 2L Osgoode student and the Vice Chair of Student Caucus.
On Tuesday, October 17th, Osgoode hosted Ellie Cha, a North Korean defector who now studies in South Korea. Ellie came to York University as part of the HanVoice Pioneers Program, which hosts a North Korean refugee in Canada every year for a parliamentary internship and a speaking tour. The program is run by the HanVoice Support Association, a national North Korea Human Rights organization based in Toronto.
It is often difficult to bring public attention to the North Korean people. This is especially true today, with the nuclear crisis dominating the news cycle. It can be difficult to remember that there are real people suffering under this regime, and that there are real human experiences hidden behind the headlines about missiles and threats.
The HanVoice Pioneers Program is one way to bring attention to the North Korean people.
Ellie’s visit to Osgoode was a chance for students to hear the story of her life in, and escape from, North Korea.
Ellie was born into an elite family. Her father was the Vice President of a major mining company, and Ellie grew up relatively better off than many North Koreans. However, when one of her relatives lost the government’s favour, her father was fired and the family’s status quickly declined. The change was incredibly quick and severe. With a deteriorating economic situation, the family fled North Korea.
As with many North Korean refugees, Ellie’s family used smugglers to escape the country. These situations can be extremely dangerous, and there are ample opportunities for exploitation. The end goal for North Korean defectors is almost always to get to a South Korean embassy.
As with many refugees, Ellie’s family was arrested several times along their journey. Often, North Koreans are arrested in Southeast Asian transit countries, such as Thailand and Vietnam. Arrest is particularly risky because the authorities could send the defectors to China, where they will be repatriated back to North Korea. Luckily, Ellie’s family was not sent back to the Chinese authorities, but they were shuffled around several countries before finally making it to a South Korean embassy.
The Journey of Refugees
Fortunately, Ellie and her family made it to South Korea. Although the family was safe, they faced struggles in their adopted home as well. Her father had trouble in the ultra-competitive jobs market, and her brother faced bullying for his North Korean accent.
At this point, Ellie made an incredibly important observation about refugees, but one that is too easily overlooked – the journey for refugees does not end when they arrive in a safe country. Although Ellie and her family were safe, they were still displaced. Their hometown was in North Korea, but it was not safe to return.
This is a lesson for Canada as well. Refugees from all countries come to our shores for safety and opportunity. We generously — and rightly — invite them into the Canadian family. However, their journey does not end when they settle in a Canadian community; their journey lasts much longer than that. Canadian policy and society needs to recognize this reality.
How can Osgoode Students Help North Koreans?
North Koreans have limited access to information about both domestic and international affairs since most of their information is filtered through the state media. However, North Koreans have a thirst for knowledge about the outside world. Osgoode students can help them get that knowledge.
HanVoice runs a program called “Project E,” which is designed to get information into the most secluded country on Earth. This program collects USBs from students, which are then loaded with information about both North Korea and the outside world. These USBs are then smuggled into North Korea and into the hands of the North Korean people.
HanVoice will be conducting a USB drive in the Winter semester, which is an excellent way for students to get involved in this initiative. Give an old USB and it could find its way into the hands of a North Korean citizen, helping to accelerate change on the ground in North Korea.
One of the simplest ways Osgoode students can help is to remind themselves and others that there are real people behind the headlines. The personal jabs between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un may grab the attention of the media, but remember that real people are starving and scared for their safety. If we all remember that, then at least the people are not forgotten, and that is the first step towards change in North Korea.