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June 30th, 2009
Crossing Heaven's Border
Aaron Brown Interview: Debra Liang-Fenton

Debra Liang-Fenton is a human rights expert with the United States Institute of Peace, and the former Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. She spoke with WIDE ANGLE host Aaron Brown about North Korea’s isolation and China’s fears of an influx of refugees.

AARON BROWN:
I want to start by talking about life in North Korea. I don’t mean the politics of it, but just life itself. As we sit here today, what’s the biggest story in the world?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Michael Jackson died.

AARON BROWN:
Michael Jackson died. It is probably the front page of virtually every newspaper in the world, on every website. People in North Korea know that Michael Jackson died?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
I would venture to say no one in North Korea, well very few people in North Korea even know who Michael Jackson is.

AARON BROWN:
So they didn’t even know he was alive.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
No. And they certainly don’t know that he died.

AARON BROWN:
Do they know that there has been this turmoil in Iran over the last couple of weeks?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
I would say no. Absolutely not. That kind of activity is something that the North Korean regime is afraid of. And in an effort to not enable something like that to happen, in other words not enable dissenting voices, to take to the streets, which really doesn’t exist anyway in North Korea, they have complete control over information. So the only information that people in North Korea have is that which they get from the North Korean government, which is all propaganda. Now, increasingly, more and more people have access to radios which they jerry-rig to enable them, especially if they’re along the Chinese border, or close to the South Korean border, to try to tune in to Chinese radio programming, and South Korean radio programming, just to listen to soap operas, pop songs and to get the news. But, really, those are very few people. And very few people have cell phones as well.

AARON BROWN:
So they don’t…

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Controlling information is just one mechanism that the North Korean regime uses to maintain an iron grip on power.

AARON BROWN:
Okay. I want to come back to that point. Because I want to try and understand a bit more about what they know and what they don’t know, okay? So, on the insignificance scale they don’t know Michael Jackson’s dead. Do they have any sense that South Koreans live pretty well?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
There are different classes of people inside North Korea. Basically, there are three categories. Core, wavering and hostile. The core group, this is all based on assessment of loyalty to the regime. The core group gets certain privileges. They get jobs and they get maybe a television set. They have transportation. So they may have access to information about life outside North Korea. But maybe South Korea does have, it’s a developing democracy, it’s a developed democracy. They may have information on other parts of the world. In fact, they may get to travel to these parts of the world. For the majority of North Koreans, however, they don’t know that South Korea is much better developed than North Korea. And, in fact, these people are told that North Korea is a paradise on earth. And no other country matches up to them.

AARON BROWN:
How do you tell people you’re living in a paradise if they’re starving?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
You know, I have asked that question a lot, to the defectors who I’ve met. And it’s not something that’s easily comprehensible to most people. First of all, there is mass starvation going on inside the country. There was a major famine in the 1990s. And, since then, there have been chronic food shortages. When a person is in starvation mode, they don’t necessarily use logic and follow the same thought processes that other people, who live a more normal life might practice. I was asking a very high ranking defector, in Seoul this question, and he said, “You just don’t understand it until you have to live there.” These people will hear through propaganda, you know, that they have loudspeakers that various countries have paid tribute to Kim Jong Il in the form of tons of food. And grain. And, yet, these people are starving. They use all kinds of rationale, in their own minds, as to why they’re not getting the food. Well the dear leader is really trying his best to feed us. But it’s really constrained by forces outside of his control. But we’re going to prevail because he’s the greatest leader in the world. It never

AARON BROWN:
So you’re sitting there, I mean…

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
It doesn’t make any sense.

AARON BROWN:
Right. So you’re sitting there starving, or near starving, or you children are malnourished, or whatever. And you rationalize your way out of it because the whole of your life has been subjected to propaganda message anyway.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Absolutely. Now, there are some people, especially in the outlying areas, who you know, don’t have access to a lot of these resources including food. And they may be getting information that life is a little bit different. They may know people who have gone to China, and have come back, and have brought back goods and, again, more information about the world outside. And so these people may try to leave the country, as we, you know, saw in the documentary.

AARON BROWN:
Why does, in that regard, why does the government care? Can’t feed the people who are there anyway. What does it care if people leave? I can understand why it would care if people leave and then come back, because they come back with information. Why do they care if they go?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Well, they don’t want people to get this information. So if they can keep the people inside they will never get that information, presumably. It is a criminal offense to leave the country. It’s punishable by, certainly, harsh interrogation. And, in some cases, imprisonment and torture. So they’ve put in a lot of mechanisms to try to deter this flow of movement of people. But conditions are so dire in North Korea that it’s happening anyway. I understand your question, why do they care if people leave as long as they don’t come back? Well, it’s not really realistic. Because most people still have family members inside North Korea. They’re leaving because they want to help their families. It’s not always possible to bring all of their family members. So if they go to China, and bring back food or some money to help their family survive inside North Korea, that’s how they want to be able to do it.

AARON BROWN:
So this kind of romantic notion that is a part of the film itself, which is there’s a kind of underground railroad that takes you from the poorer of North Korea through China and eventually to some promise land or another, is narrowly romantic, and not necessarily the experience of most defectors?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
The truth is that there are some really great, hard working, sincere people working on helping North Korean defectors leave their country, and especially helping them inside China, where they are obligated to live in hiding, because of the position of the Chinese government. And these people will try to find the route for them, and try to help them. Some of them, I would say most of them, are probably getting paid for this service. But, you know, if it’s helping this population then it can be argued that that’s okay. They’re still saving people’s lives.

AARON BROWN:
They’re smugglers of people.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yeah. Some of them. Some of them do it out of a sense of duty and wanting to contribute something positive to this population. And, in a way, you can call it an underground railroad movement. It’s a vast, well, I wouldn’t say it’s vast, but there is a network as individuals, basically, coordinating this.

AARON BROWN:
I want to be careful with this analogy, because I actually can think of about four reasons why it doesn’t hold up exactly. But it’s not absolutely unlike a smuggler network that brings people into the United States. You have people, they are paid to help you cross dangerous borders, navigate dangerous places, and you hope it works out.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
That’s the case. But I would say that what distinguishes the North Koreans’ experience, in this regard, is that they are fleeing an intolerable situation. Into a situation, in China, perhaps or elsewhere in southeast Asia, where they have to live in hiding. It is a constantly precarious environment for them. And so staying in one place can also be dangerous. If they can keep moving to a final destination point, such as South Korea, for example they’re much better off. And so there is incentive for them to try to have a more stable life in a country that will welcome them.

AARON BROWN:
I want to get to the defectors, China, all that in a second. Let me go back to North Korea for a little bit. Every now and then the government says just things that are totally nuts, okay. The other day they said, “We’re going to wipe America off the face of the earth, finally.” Now, nobody in America believes that. Who are they saying that for? What is the point of that?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
They’re undergoing a leadership transition process right now. And it’s very important for the regime to foment extreme nationalist ideology –

AARON BROWN:
So that’s for –

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
For their own people.

AARON BROWN:
– domestic consumption.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yes. For their own people.

AARON BROWN:
Do you think there are people walking around North Korea going, “Yeah, we’re gonna wipe the United States off the face of the earth,” and actually buy into that?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yeah.

AARON BROWN:
Really?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yeah. I have talked to defectors about this. And I’ve seen other footage about the level of indoctrination is so extreme, it’s from birth, that people are actually taught to hate the United States.

AARON BROWN:
Well, I can understand that. I mean…

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
There’s nothing that galvanizes and unifies a country more than a common enemy.

AARON BROWN:
Right. I agree with that. But Cubans are taught also to hate the United States, from birth, but there’s not a Cuban walking around Havana who thinks that Havana’s gonna wipe America off the face of the earth.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
You know, you can’t compare Cuba with North Korea. Cuba has information. They get tourists. They’re allowed to create music. And it’s not, it certainly has its problems that need to be addressed. And there are egregious human rights problems going on inside Cuba as well. But there is a level of expression that exists in Cuba that you just don’t have in North Korea. The level of repression is so severe in North Korea that Cuba looks like a free country.

AARON BROWN:
That’s, in a sense, that’s the point of this to me, is that, while there are lots of places in the world that propagandize, that control information, that control media. Maybe Burma comes close, but nobody left in this incredibly wired world is able to put a bubble around a country in the same way the North Koreans are. They almost stand alone in their ability to keep out information that they don’t want people to have. It’s tremendous effort that must go into that.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yeah. It must be a tremendous effort. But, again it is the way the regime stays in power.

AARON BROWN:
And so, at the end, it’s all about that. It’s just all about power. It’s the military which has an inordinate amount of power. The family, as it turns out, the dear leader and the supreme leader and little baby leader and all those leaders, that they all get to control the levers of power. It’s no more than that. There’s no ideology behind it. That’s it.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Well, the ideology is that, you know, this family is a deified family. Kim Jong Il is deified, as with his father. And, yes, I guess you’re right. Consolidation of power is their top priority. And so one of the mechanisms of control is to control all resources based on loyalty. Another is information control. And the constant propaganda. They are the best leaders in the world.

AARON BROWN:
They know how critically this is about to sound. But at some level I always think people like that must, at some point in their lives, go, “Gee, we’re starving 24 million people.” I mean that…

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yeah.

AARON BROWN:
Seems a bit harsh to keep a nice home in not that nice of a city, to be perfectly honest. That they have they have to have convinced themselves of something more than just staying in power.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
I can’t guess as to why how this all what the provenance of all of this was. Except to say that they probably worry that, if it is known to their general populous that they’ve been lied to all these years that that will surely be the death knell literally, for them. And they don’t want that. Because the level of deceit is so high. They probably feel that they need to perpetuate this in order to stay alive themselves. But they don’t just want to stay alive. They want to, you know have their policies and brandy and Mercedes. And live in this world where everybody in that country bows down to them.

AARON BROWN:
I want to talk about just one more thing on this. The incredible thing is, not just that they keep information out, which they are incredibly skilled at, but it is also true that they only occasionally let people in to take a look. And then the look they get is very narrow. So we don’t know a whole lot about them. There is a sense of, I’m not sure mystery’s exactly the right word, but mystery about who they are, why they are, what drives them, where they’re going, how they see it, all of that.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Well, there are a couple of things here. First of all, we can get information from the growing number of defectors who have left the country. And they are now forming a critical massive independent voices and information about life inside North Korea. Secondly, North Korea does allow, periodically tour groups to come visit. And, you’re right, it is completely controlled. But, you know, I guess I would say that any kind of exposure is good exposure. The more we learn how surreal it is there the more we may want to find out more, the average person. The more they find out that not all westerners are demons, are terrible and out to get them there becomes a learning process about the world around them. That’s an optimistic viewpoint. Secondly humanitarian aid organizations well, through the World Food Program, have, in the past, been able to develop some relationships with their North Korean counterparts. And, again, that is an important avenue to develop exposure about each other in the process of trying to help feed their population.

AARON BROWN:
But, honestly, in the last 50 years, it really hasn’t changed very much, has it?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
You know, when you’re talking about a country as closed as North Korea, and certainly in the field of human rights, change sometimes doesn’t happen so quickly. When you’re looking for change, you’re really looking for these small baby steps that will help enable change to happen.

AARON BROWN:
And what would be a good baby step? Tell me what a baby step is.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Well, let’s see, with North Korea it’s sometimes three steps forward two steps back. There have been concessions made in the food policy. Recently they had said that the World Food Program could bring in their own Korean speakers, which is something they had never allowed before. Now, okay, so most recently that’s all come to a halt. But these little bench marks are worth noting. That means that, as relationships develop, we’re hopeful that they will start to build trust and we will be able, the international community will eventually be able, to get in there and help them. Again, this is a rather that’s optimistic. The reality is, you’re right, there haven’t been a lot of changes inside North Korea. But the kind of system that they’re perpetuating right now really requires a constant back and forth with the international community. And hearing that NGOs, human rights NGOs are producing reports, and got satellite images, of their prison camp system that the world…

AARON BROWN:
I don’t think they care.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
I think they care about that.

AARON BROWN:
Do you?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
I think they care about that. And people can approach them…

AARON BROWN:
I kind of get the feeling that they don’t care.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Then diplomats — from Europe, perhaps, can go and say, “What’s going on here? We read this report.”

AARON BROWN:
And they go, “Nothing. Nothing’s going on here.”

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
And they, well, they didn’t deny it, actually.

AARON BROWN:
Okay, they say, “Something’s going on here, and we’re not changing it.”

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Right. But it takes, again, you can’t have, with a regime like this, you can’t have immediate change so dramatically. We’re working on that change. And part of that is a dialogue on what our human rights and humanitarian concerns are, they are very concerned about this population. And what we would like to propose is X, Y and Z. For example– getting the International Committee of the Red Cross in to provide medical assistance to prisoners. You know, this kind of thing.

AARON BROWN:
At a number of levels, the Chinese can be more helpful than they are here. Why aren’t they? I mean, they, the defectors who make their way to China live in constant fear, as we’ve seen in the film. They have no real status, as we’ve seen in the film. In some cases there’s a bounty on their heads if they, you know, are turned back. Why don’t the Chinese step up?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
You know, China faces a host of policy problems with North Korea. Of which the refugee situation is only one. But I just want to say this, it doesn’t excuse them from treating this population so terribly inside its own borders. China joined the executive committee or the UNHCR’s program in 1951, which is the committee that helps to dictate policy and administrate this policy. They signed on to the refugee convention. They have a special obligation to uphold international standards toward North Korean refugees. They are not doing that. Why aren’t they doing that? Okay.

AARON BROWN:
Right. That’s your question.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Okay. Well, first of all, they argue, somewhat legitimately, that they are afraid of a flow of North Korean refugees coming inside its borders. That will be incredibly destabilizing for them. Who is going to help them take care of this large population? The truth is that, when they send the North Koreans back, you know, North Koreans are faced with terrible treatment. Again, China, as you probably know, they don’t care about that. They claim to have a bilateral agreement with North Korea, saying that, “If we see any North Koreans inside our borders we will send them back.” That’s their excuse. “These people are not refugees. They’re economic migrants.”

AARON BROWN:
In the Chinese view.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yes. In the Chinese view. Again, the truth is that, because this population faces extreme persecution, once they return to their home country, they are considered refugees. And China must allow the UNHCR access to this population along the border. I guess their reasoning for not doing it is because they just don’t want the possibility of a big resettlement camp inside its own borders. Now, there are lots of NGOs. And the UNHCR certainly would be more than willing to be assessing the status of this population, and to be trying to help them. Certainly the international community should be speaking out and dialoguing with China on what they can possibly do to help this population. I think the more China hears that maybe the world community recognizes this could be a serious problem, how can we help China address this serious problem could do something. The other problematic dimension of this, of course, is that North Korean serves as a handy buffer between China and a democratic South Korea with US troops. I think that the last thing they want to see is a unified Korean peninsula that’s a democracy with nuclear weapons, possibly. They don’t want that. And so they are walking a fine line. They want to keep North Korea going. As annoying as the regime is to them. They’ve been very, I think, unhappy with the regime. But they want to keep this…

AARON BROWN:
But it serves some –

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yes. It serves –

AARON BROWN:
– larger geopolitical interest to them.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yes.

AARON BROWN:
And if these people, these hundreds of thousands of people were to suffer along the way, too bad.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Right. So the critical component here is for the international community to be able to communicate to China that, in fact, keeping the status quo serves as more of a security threat to them than doing nothing, “we’re returning this population.” North Korea is unstable right now. Especially with this transition going on. That might mean more inflows of refugees. With the number of North Korean refugees inside China’s borders right now, who don’t have legal status, particularly the children who are being born inside China right now, with no legal status, there is a generation of people coming up with no education who feel that they don’t have a lot of resources. That’s a pretty profound potential security threat.

AARON BROWN:
Okay. But if I’m the leader of China, and I hear you say that, I’m thinking “are you kidding me?” I’ve got about 50 million people, 100 million people in my country, Chinese, who are living exactly the same way. Who aren’t getting much of an education. Who are literally living a peasant life out in rural areas. These are not people driving fancy cars in downtown Beijing or Shanghai. And you know, I’m more concerned about that security threat, frankly, than a bunch of defectors from North Korea.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Well, I guess the difference is that those people are actually Chinese citizens. They could have access because they’re living in a more remote community. They may have to travel further to get to school or for medical care. But the truth is that, if you’re a North Korean in China, you don’t have any access to that.

AARON BROWN:
I mean, I’m not, in any sense, trying to defend the North Koreans or the Chinese, but I am trying to understand a bit the Chinese position. And, if I’m running China, again, my biggest concern is, I’ve created, or we have created, an economic environment of significant wealth and extraordinary poverty. And it’s a dangerous cocktail, that. You know, that is the kind of thing that leads to serious unrest and trouble and revolution, whatever, however you want to frame it. And my guess is that they look at North Korea and go, “Yeah, that’s annoying, but, honestly, probably more good than bad.” They’re pragmatic.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
They are pragmatic.

AARON BROWN:
It gets in your way, I mean, I understand that, this can’t be solved without China. So many problems in the world right now, problems in Africa, other places, can’t be solved without China. Chinese operate on, most countries do, totally in their self interests.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
So, I mean, I guess this points to the need for a more concerted dialogue with the Chinese government on what they should be doing. China aspires to be the world’s leading super power. But, as such, it must live up to the behaviors that is commensurate with that status. And they are falling down in that regard.

AARON BROWN:
As we sit here today, the North Koreans are holding two young American journalists. They have tried them. They have convicted them. They have sentenced them in that North Korean way to 12 years of hard labor for the crime of coming into the country pretty much. What’s their game? What do they want here?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Well, the charge was hostile acts.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yes. And they said they did enter the country. I don’t know exactly where they were. What they want to do is to use these two women as bargaining chips, I think for maybe some concessions on the nuclear side.

AARON BROWN:
What do you think their game is with the two American journalists?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
I’m hopeful that the two journalists are being treated in a dignified and humane way. I think that the chances of that are good, simply because North Korea has historically, you know, wanted a high level envoy to come to them to apologize and then ask for their release. And then the person gets released. And they don’t want these two journalists to come back to America to say they were tortured, there were rats everywhere and they weren’t fed. When they come back, they will want them to say they were treated humanely. And so for that reason, I’m hopeful that their situation right now is okay.

AARON BROWN:
You think it has some sort of back channel, back and forth going on between the American government, through whomever in the North Korean government. And what is it they want? I mean, do they want something? Or do they just want an apology?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yeah. It’s more than an apology. I think what they are going to be looking for are concessions on the security issue, the nuclear issue. They may ask for things to be taken off from the sanctions list. They may ask for all sanctions to be removed that the UN has just imposed since the May 25th nuclear test. So they will probably try to use the journalists as leverage to exact some kind of concessions on the nuclear front.

AARON BROWN:
If I’m one of those two journalists, that does not make me feel very good.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
No. But, you know, I don’t know, I’m not privy to these –

AARON BROWN:
I know.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
– discussions. And so I don’t know what they’re talking about, actually, the U.S. government with North Korea.

AARON BROWN:
But the point you’re making — and we’ll move off this — is that there are things that North Koreans want. There are things they want from America. There are things they want from Europe. There are things they want from the Chinese. There are things they want. And they’re trying to figure out ways to get them without giving up the ghost of life.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Right. China definitely participates in this relationship. They, I guess two thirds of their trade is back and forth between China. So there is a strong relationship there economically with China, I think.

AARON BROWN:
What are they trading? What are North Koreans making that the Chinese want?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Well, it’s mainly what’s being made in China that –

AARON BROWN:
That the North Koreans want?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yeah. That North Koreans want. There are also, you know, we do have reports that there are goods that are being produced inside North Korea, either in factories and sometimes even in the prison camps and stuff that are then brought back to China and China puts a “Made in China” label on it. And then it goes off to Europe and who knows where.

AARON BROWN:
These are some sort of state-owned factories that are doing this.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Right.

AARON BROWN:
Is there a black market that goes on in North Korea?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
There is a black market.

AARON BROWN:
Is there a sense of entrepreneurship in North Korea?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
You know, increasingly there is. Which may take on a different form than how we perceive entrepreneurialship to be in this country. Again, in order to survive even if you have a little something, prices are going up in North Korea. People may feel they need to make a little bit of extra money on the side to help support their families. And so they get goods together and try to sell them on the black market. And in that sense, there is, I think, a growing entrepreneurship.

AARON BROWN:
And does the government kind of wink and nod at that? Or does it try and in the way honestly the Cuban, I mean, ultimately the Cubans just relented and allowed these dollar businesses, whether they were markets or restaurants, whatever, to operate openly. But does the government wink and nod at that?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Well, in some cases, the government, you know, government officials are involved.

AARON BROWN:
So the army, the government are the benefactors?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yeah.

AARON BROWN:
If I manage to get out of North Korea, and then I manage to survive this kind of harrowing existence in China, and then I manage to survive this complicated and often dangerous trek from China to South Korea, have I landed in heaven?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yes and no. I think mainly yes. Because they have been wanting this for so long. This is their end goal, is to have them land in South Korea safely and to be taken in by the South Korean government safely and to eventually have their families come into South Korea safely. There are many more opportunities for them hopefully in South Korea. On the other hand, it can be sometimes difficult for North Korean defectors in South Korea. We have had reports that by and large, they are much happier, of course, in South Korea than they were in North Korea. But it’s…life is different in South Korea than it was for them in North Korea. And it’s like a foreign land. There’s technology. There is 24 hours of electricity.

AARON BROWN:
It is a foreign land.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yeah. It is a foreign land.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
There are soap operas, pop songs, which they never had in North Korea. There’s abundant food. And a lot of them still miss their homeland. But they recognize that this is a much better place. Socially it can be difficult because in South Korea people rely very much on family contact and then social education, you know, school contact. And as they grow older, they rely on these contacts to help them get along in society. And the North Koreans don’t have those contacts.

AARON BROWN:
Do the South Koreans forget officially, unofficially, at a neighborhood level, do they welcome the North Koreans in? Or are they seen as lesser people? Or are they seen as brothers and sisters? How are they seen?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
South Koreans profess that the North Koreans are their brothers and sisters. And they show a lot of concern and caring towards that population. But I think in reality while there is an element of this caring, there’s also a concern that with more and more North Koreans coming in, it could be potentially destabilizing for South Korea and their economy. Are these people going to be a drag on their economy? They’re very prosperous. They work very hard. And I think that at least this has been expressed to me that sometimes some of them worry that it might be too much for them to absorb larger and larger numbers of North Koreans. Increasingly there are more and more NGOs that are popping up to help the North Korean defector community inside South Korea. That’s great. I think other ways to help enable the South Korean government to develop more resources to be able to help North Korean defectors will be also important. I don’t know what kind of role the international community could play there. But I think that’s really seriously worth looking at. South Korea is the logical destination for most.

AARON BROWN:
I was reading about a young North Korean who ends up in the south, you know, having actually grown up in a prison camp, as I recall. Which is a whole other matter. And he gets to North Korea. And there are so many things he does not know.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yeah.

AARON BROWN:
He doesn’t know there’s money.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yeah.

AARON BROWN:
The concept of money is unknown to him. In a prison camp, I guess that doesn’t come up much. But even the best of the most well off of the defectors come to North or South Korea knowing very little about the world outside of North Korea.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Right. And since South Korea has put into place a process that helps to acclimatize North Korean defectors. There is a facility Hanawon, that is designed to help North Koreans come in and learn about money and washing machines and South Korean culture and how they operate to help enable them to fit more smoothly into society. You know, unfortunately with growing numbers of North Koreans and fewer resources to be able to fund these sorts of programs, I think it used to be nine months or six months in this facility. Now I think it’s down to three months or even less where North Koreans learn about South Korea. And South Koreans also then learn what these North Koreans are saying as well. But they get less of a stipend, I think, also from the South Korean government. But this is what I mean. If we can find ways to help resource these good programs, I think that would only, you know, serve the well-being of the defector community in South Korea.

AARON BROWN:
Can South Korea absorb them all? All the North Korean defectors. Could they literally absorb them all in South Korean society? Or do they need to be dispersed? It’s a terrible thing to say about human beings, honestly. But do they need to be sent also to Thailand or Malaysia or Singapore or some place, southern California, for that matter? Or can South Korea handle it?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Well, it really depends on what numbers we’re looking at. I think that it would be difficult for them to absorb, I don’t know, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans without boosting that resource base in some way. I think that other countries, including the U.S. and in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, should be looking seriously at promoting effective resettlement programs inside their own countries for North Korean defectors, to help South Korea and to help China.

AARON BROWN:
I asked you how South Koreans see North Koreans. I’m curious how North Koreans see South Koreans. Do they see them as tools of the Americans? Do they see them as decadent kings? Do they see them as brothers and sisters? What is how do they see the people in the South?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
You know, that’s an interesting question that I don’t know ever came up in my conversations. The defectors who we’ve spoken with have settled very adequately in South Korea. And they seem…

AARON BROWN:
Comfortably?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yes. Comfortably. And they seem happy to be in South Korea. And have never indicated that there was any resentment toward any South Korean.

AARON BROWN:
And is there a ceiling on their mobility in South Korean life? If they’re could they rise to the top of or, could they become teachers or cops or are there limitations on what a North Korean defector who ends up South Korea can do or be?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
You know, I think if you’re a higher ranking North Korean defector, the South Korean government wants you.

AARON BROWN:
But if you’re a general?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
You’ll be okay. For other, more ordinary, North Korean citizens who resettle in South Korea, I think it really depends. I think that increasingly, as time goes on it will be easier for them to establish normal employment and to live out a normal life.

AARON BROWN:
Because, you know, I mean, in watching the film, one of the things that struck me is first of all, this may be to the vagaries of journalism, in truth. You may have ended up with a bunch of characters who are female and therefore don’t necessarily represent the defector class as a whole. But they were largely young. Largely women. Are they largely young and largely women, by the way?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yes.

AARON BROWN:
Why is that?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Well, it’s an interesting question. In the past, at the height of the famine, you were getting more men who were coming over crossing the river into China, to again help make money, bring food back, that kind of thing. Increasingly over time, there have been more women and more children who have been defecting so that now we see the majority of defectors are actually women who leave the country because for lots of different reasons. Maybe the male of their household died because of the famine. Or they are considered in the hostile class. So they have a lot of difficulty surviving inside North Korea. So they come to China. And unfortunately, as a result, many of them do fall into the hands of brokers who will arrange to have them forcibly married to Chinese men. The women depicted in the film luckily, you know, that luckily didn’t happen to them. They faced their own hardship.

AARON BROWN:
Right.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Every experience, in a way, is unique to themselves. But a lot of women don’t have it so lucky. They will be forced into marriages. They will be sold into sexual slavery, prostitution. Although the majority are forced into marriages.

And at any rate, these women are particularly vulnerable. Because again, they are refugees. They have no status. Even if they’re married to Chinese men, they have no legal status as Chinese citizens inside China. And nor do their children.

AARON BROWN:
Do the children that they may have with the arranged husband, do those children have status?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
No.

AARON BROWN:
So even though the father is Chinese…

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Right. Because the wife hasn’t, you know, been declared as a Chinese citizen. And so she doesn’t have papers. And so this child, this is what I was saying earlier, the child then may not have status. And then grows up without an education.

AARON BROWN:
Right. So I mean, I understood that to mean, when you said it earlier, as the children these women, you know, bringing these children over. These children have no status.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
That’s true, too.

AARON BROWN:
As opposed to the children of these marriages.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Right.

AARON BROWN:
Also true?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Both apply. Yeah.

AARON BROWN:
I’m confused, I guess, a bit about how the Chinese government then sees these marriages. Are they legal marriages? Do you go down to the Appellate Bureau, Marriage Bureau, and take out a legal marriage license and where it says citizenship, you go, “Let’s skip that one”?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
The Chinese government by and large does not recognize these marriages to be legal. Because then they would have to recognize the North Korean women, then, as becoming a Chinese citizen and they don’t want to do that. Although, that would be one of our big recommendations. If first of all, China toward the refugee population as a whole, if the Chinese government would not return North Korean defectors.

AARON BROWN:
Right.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Just turn a blind eye to them. Just ignore them. Don’t return them. That’s at a minimum. Secondly, recognize North Korean women married to Chinese men so that they can have legal status and then they can get medical care and provide education for their children.

AARON BROWN:
You know, I understand that. And that’s a very pragmatic, honestly, but…

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
It’s in their own best interest to do that.

AARON BROWN:
Right. But, you know the down side of that to me is that it encourages something you don’t like, which is brokered, forced marriages. All of a sudden, if I’m the defector woman, it is in my interest to be married off to some Chinese guy who I may never have met before, frankly. Because all of a sudden, my life — I mean, how healthy is that?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Well, I guess what could possibly happen in that scenario is that the woman knows that she could have some power herself to make a decision. She’s going to get married to a Chinese man, and then she will have status. If, again, this is over a long period of time, I think if this were to happen, it’s possible that a broker will always be involved. Because it’s such a precarious situation. And they’re just sitting there, right over the border. And they work in tandem with people on the North Korean side. So it’s possible that yes, brokers will be continuously involved in this process. But at least the woman would have recourse if she were abused. She could leave and there she would be, as a Chinese citizen and would have access to those, you know, opportunities that could be afforded to her. If a North Korean woman without legal status leaves a Chinese husband, she has nothing.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
She may be returned to North Korea. I know what you’re saying about the Chinese government then perpetuating something that they don’t want to happen anyway. But it’s going on as it is. I guess I would argue that it is a much more stabilizing situation if they recognize that these women could become Chinese citizens.

AARON BROWN:
Right. I’m not disagreeing with you here at all. But…and I don’t even care what the Chinese government’s position is in all of this. My concern is that maybe I just have to accept this. Under that scenario, where if you marry a Chinese man you get status, that all of a sudden there’s this rush to marry these Chinese men. And you’re essentially a slave. For as long as you’re married, you’re fine. But what if he tires of you?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Well, then again, if you have status, you can part ways. And you won’t be under threat of being repatriated if you were a Chinese citizen.

AARON BROWN:
They’re not gonna do that. Do you think the Chinese are going to do that?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
They would not repatriate a Chinese citizen –

AARON BROWN:
No.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
– to North Korea.

AARON BROWN:
I agree with that. But can you imagine the Chinese allowing the woman to become some class of Chinese citizen, you know, some legal form. Can you imagine them doing that? You can’t. That’s because you’re a human rights worker and you live on optimism.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
I think there’s…

AARON BROWN:
Honestly. I mean, I know you couldn’t do what you do.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
That’s true. But I actually think that it’s– it is probable.

AARON BROWN:
Really?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yeah.

AARON BROWN:
And the reason it’s probable, the reason the Chinese would find it in their interest to do that, ’cause we’ve already decided the Chinese will only do what is in their self interest. The reason they would do that is ’cause they’re fearful of the consequences. Of the social consequences of not doing it?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
That could be one reason. Another reason could be, I don’t know, maybe they’re tired of hearing from various outlets that they are not doing the right thing.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
And face is very important to the Chinese.

AARON BROWN:
If we can. Clearly the American government has limited clout with the North Korean government. Kind of do this weird dance of insults back and forth and it doesn’t seem to change anything. Is there, behind the scenes, American influence that we do not see in the area of human rights that actually might make life better for someone living in North Korea?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Well from the U.S. side, I think that, you know, in 2004 the North Korea Human Rights Act was passed by the U.S. Congress. And it got updated in 2008. That amazingly gave the defector movement a huge boost in morale that this big country, the United States, cared so much about this issue that Congress passed legislation on the subject. In terms of speaking directly to the North Korean government about human rights concerns, I, of course, would advocate that the U.S. government do that on a regular basis. But you’re right. The relationship between the U.S. and North Korea is acrimonious. So what’s going to be effective here –

AARON BROWN:
Acrimonious? They just said they wanna wipe us off the face of the earth!

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
They’re gonna annihilate us.

AARON BROWN:
Acrimonious?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
I’m trying to be diplomatic. Basically really if we want to be effective on human rights we should be looking for partners. We should be asking countries that have diplomatic ties with North Korea, Germany, England, Norway and Sweden in their dialogue with North Korea to be consistently raising their human rights concerns. Now this will also only get so far. What I really think needs to be happening right now is for the international community to establish a regional organization and framework on security and cooperation in northeast Asia that will allow that will put into place a process for discussions on these major areas of concern: security, economic, and human rights concerns. The human dimension — to include humanitarian aid, refugee problems and to include family reunification. With that the world will be able to have a sustained dialogue, with or without North Korea. Maybe initially they won’t buy into it. But we need a unified, coherent strategy on how to deal with this country. And we don’t have that right now. I think the members of the Six Party Talks tried their best. But I think what it has shown is that a dialogue that focused so narrowly on denuclearization is not sustainable. We need a broader, more solid framework with regard to North Korea.

AARON BROWN:
North Korea has shown a lot of interest in changing up to this point — but change for North Korea would be motivated by what? What is it that these talks would touch in the North Korean regime soul, assuming a soul exists there, that would have them say, “You know what? We need to lighten up”?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Well, you know, I guess to encourage them to enter the world community would potentially provide a lot of benefits to them. First of all, they would be able to develop economically perhaps to the extent that South Korea has, which has gotta be attractive to them. If they adhere to their international obligations as part of these many agreements and treaties that they’ve signed onto as part of the U.N. system sanctions would probably lifted. We would have a lot more interaction with them. And they would start building up economically, which is something they would probably be at the top of their list, that they want.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah. I mean, I’ll leave this. Because I know I’m…this is just my cockamamie view of things. But they’ve demonstrated to my satisfaction again and again and again that they don’t care. They don’t care if their own people starve. They don’t really care what anyone else thinks of them. They care about one thing, “they” being the people with power. Is that they have power. Because if you have power, you’re probably living okay. Lots of brandy. Maybe a Mercedes. You have a driver. Laundry gets cleaned, I mean, they livin’ fine. And I think that they have demonstrated again and again and again that they’re not gonna give on that. And unless some significant thing comes along that changes that. I’m way too cynical to be a human rights worker. I understand that.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Well, you know, you’re talking about North Korea here. So I completely understand where you’re coming from on this. But the truth is that power wielded in such a strong way, in such a regimental, repressive way with a fist, is not sustainable. Well, I know what you’re saying. It has been going on and on.

AARON BROWN:
That’s exactly what I’m saying.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
I guess my feeling is I’m a human rights person. It can’t possibly be sustainable forever. We need to, we have an ethical obligation, the international community, to raise these issues and to push hard on not only them, but China and the rest of the world, to be focusing their attentions on this problem to help the North Korean people. I guess, you know, this is a weak analogy. But a friend told me that, when you when you rule like this, with a fist you can’t hold any water. It’s desperate. But if you open your palm, you get the water. And that’s much more stable. And you actually get what you want in the end by doing that. And if the world community is effective at communicating that this will be in North Korea’s best interest, if they were to follow their obligation as they’ve signed onto doing as a member state of the UN, they will actually get a lot more than what they’re getting now.

AARON BROWN:
We talked about how the defectors are received when they get to South Korea. What we haven’t talked about is what they know their lives might be like in China. Do they recognize that they’re sort of non-persons in China, even if they get there?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
I think that by now, because there have been flows of people back and forth across the border, that defectors now have more of a sense of what could await them in China. But, as with all things, you can know something and even read about something and hear about something. But until you live through something, it doesn’t really resonate with you. And so they may know what could be awaiting them inside China. But the impact of that won’t be felt until they’re actually in a safehouse with brokers, suddenly part of this process where they’re trying to decide do they have the power to decide what they wanna do and where they wanna be? Or is it in the hands of someone else who is going to say, “Okay, now you’re coming with me because you say you wanna do this, so we’re gonna do this. I need this amount of money.” And that sets into motion a whole different kind of process.

AARON BROWN:
There is a moment in the film, it’s actually quite, I mean, the truth is we Americans are guilty, too, of having a kind of cartoonish or a black-and-white view of North Korea as they do of us. But where a woman says, “I’m going back. That’s my country.”

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Right. The sister.

AARON BROWN:
That’s my country. And we can’t say, as we would be want to do, well, she has lived in this propaganda
nation for the whole of her life or this or that. But there is something called North Korea nationalism, too.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yeah. And it’s strong. And it is not completely uncommon for someone who has grown up in that system to think this is as good as it’s gonna get. I am a proud North Korean and I’m gonna stay here and I’m going to be loyal to my country. The fear of the unknown could be playing into that. But more importantly, I think it is this feeling that they belong to North Korea. They’re North Koreans and they’re gonna stay in North Korea. And, you know, the sister in the documentary said she spent ten days trying to convince her sister to come with her. And she posed all of these great argument. “You’re starving. How can you say he’s such a great leader? And while he’s sitting fat and happy in his big houses?” And she had all of these answers. “What well, he has a big tummy because he’s going so hungry. And it’s the stress of not sleeping.” She had all of these answers to defined the regime’s behavior. It’s not easy getting to someone like that if her own sister was not able to convince her to seek a better life. It speaks really to her sense of nationalism and her sense of belonging to her homeland.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah, it’s complicated, I mean, millions of people who have grown up hearing basically one thing, one very controlled message again and again from almost literally the moment of their birth until the –

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
And it’s extreme. They learn about it in school.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah, no, it’s constant.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yeah, it is constant. And it is a propaganda, brainwashing.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah. I mean, you recognize the evil of it, but marvel at the consistency and willingness of the government to almost, from the moment someone’s born to the moment they die, pound in this same message over and over again in every way they can.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
The existence of the regime depends on it.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah. So just back to China for a second. When they get to China and they find out this isn’t so swell? Or this isn’t so swell, but it beats the dickens out of what I left?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Right. It really depends on what that person’s experience has been and what their expectations are and what they have in their own mind as to, you know, their final destination. Do they want to go back to North Korea after making some money in China?

AARON BROWN:
Right.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Do they have family in North Korea that will compel them to go back to North Korea? Or do they want to someday bring over their family to China and then go over to South Korea together? There are lots of considerations that these defectors go through. And it really depends on the personal experience of each defector as to how they navigate, what happens in China. And, again, that’s if they have some control. You know, in a lot of situations, if they don’t have money you know, particularly women are more vulnerable to exploitation.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
They don’t have a lot of control over what happens to them.

AARON BROWN:
You spent time around them, with them, with defectors, stood on the borders with all of that. When you leave them do you feel better or sadder? Are you more optimistic or more frustrated or both?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Well, first of all, just to be clear, I’ve never gone to the border region.

AARON BROWN:
Okay.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yeah. Simply because when I was Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, it was too high profile. And when you go out to the border region, you have to be very careful not to expose the people helping the defectors.

AARON BROWN:
Sure.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
So I just didn’t go. But in working with the defectors — whether I’ve met them here in the United States, whether I met them and worked with them in South Korea or in Japan you know — I think that’s part of what keeps me going is talking to them and the hope that they came with and are continuing actually, luckily, to live out. And when I talk to them, it gives me a lot of inspiration to keep on working on this issue and to keep helping the North Korean defector community and, more broadly, all North Koreans.

AARON BROWN:
So defectors get up the courage to leave North Korea, make the trek into China, and then find China isn’t exactly a perfect place to spend the rest of their lives. So they then take this often very risky, long, difficult journey to South Korea where they’ve heard about the glories and the economic benefits. And when they get there, do they find heaven?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Well, it depends on I guess what their expectation was to begin with. By dint of just arriving safely, I think on one hand, yes. They are in a tremendous place that they have never seen before and they have never experienced before. South Korea is a developed capitalist democracy. And it has all the trappings of such. I think that can be at once overwhelming to a North Korean defector and also, hopefully, promising given the right level of support that, first, the South Korean government is willing to offer to the North Korean defector and, secondly, the community that surrounds the North Korean defector.

AARON BROWN:
Yes.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
As time goes on, we have more and more North Korean defectors. There are over 15,000 North Korean defectors now living in South Korea. The more there are, the more they’re able to help each other. Some of them go off and do their own thing. They just want to lead a normal life. Some of them become involved in the defector movement and they want to help defectors settle inside the country.

AARON BROWN:
These 15,000 people, are they educated?

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
It varies. It’s completely variable.

AARON BROWN:
Okay. So it’s not like the upper middle class of North Korea is getting out. I mean, they could be dirt poor peasants or they might have been…

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
High ranking or rural class. There’s one really interesting story of this North Korean musician. He was a concert pianist in Pyongyang. And he was of the elite class and was allowed to travel to Russia to study music. And he was walking by a café one day. This was in Moscow.

And he heard this strange music coming from the shop. He went in and he said, “What is that?” And the guy looked at him and said, “That’s jazz.” Jazz is outlawed in North Korea. It’s too independent thinking.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
They’re only allowed to play propaganda songs that uphold the North Korean regime. And so this young musician thought, you know, it planted the seed of doubt in his mind. How could this country that I have been loyal to and have loved lied to me about something like music? He’s a true creative force, this person. Okay. So he went back to North Korea and started doing a little improve on his piano as part of, you know, the symphony orchestra I guess in practice. And he was reported. And he was told as punishment that he had to write a ten-page criticism of his actions and that he would never do it again and how bad it was. And that’s when he decided that this wasn’t the place for him. He couldn’t live in a country that would outlaw jazz of all things. And so he defected. And he was a high-ranking person.

AARON BROWN:
Fabulous story. I mean, you got to kind of wonder about the person listening to the music going, “What is that? I think I’ll report him for…”

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yes. It was so foreign. It wasn’t according to the party line. It wasn’t “we love the dear leader.” It was something that came to him because that’s how jazz is. And that wasn’t acceptable.

AARON BROWN:
It’s, well, I mean, jazz is inherently an act of individual expression.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Exactly.

AARON BROWN:
In a culture –

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Which is something, yes, exactly, in a culture that doesn’t permit that in North Korea.

AARON BROWN:
– at any level.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
No.

AARON BROWN:
That’s an abomination.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
It is.

AARON BROWN:
It’s not that prison camps aren’t abominations. They are.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
It’s all an abomination.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
What’s an abomination is the level of repression of this government.

AARON BROWN:
Yeah.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
– That run from the vast gulag system, that incarcerates family members of presume offenders, all the way to outlawing singing South Korean pop songs. I’m referring to another story of another defector we spoke with who was thrown into a prison camp for singing a South Korean pop song. We’ve heard other stories of people being imprisoned for putting a glass on top of a newspaper that had a picture of Kim Jong-il on it. It’s that level of control. It’s all an abomination.

AARON BROWN:
It’s the film itself, the stories that the film tells is a great testament, I think, to human hope.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Yeah.

AARON BROWN:
The ability to rise above the things that really, in many cases, don’t even understand but just know are fundamentally wrong. The time that you’ve given us to kind of put some meat on some of those bones has been incredibly helpful. It’s great to meet you. Thanks for joining us on Wide Angle.

DEBRA LIANG-FENTON:
Thank you.

AARON BROWN:
Thank you.

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