Senior helps publish book telling plight of North Korean refugees

By Claire Hong

Josh Ha ’12 worked with The Organization for One Korea in 2010 to publish a book released this summer, that shares the stories of refugees from North Korea.

Growing up, Ha often heard stories from his grandmother of how she and her husband had fled Korea one December evening in 1945 before the onset of the Korean War. Ha’s grandfather had been a pastor living in what is now North Korea and had been told by the government, which was installed by the communist Soviet Union, that he must preach communism or face death or torture.

When I was younger, I didn’t really grasp how powerful these stories are and how much pain people had to endure,” Ha said. “It never occurred to me that my family had to go through such a traumatic event, and I guess it was something that I always kept in the back of my head.”

Although Ha had always grown up knowing the story of his grandparents, it wasn’t until the summer of 2010 that he felt he really understood the gravity of the North Korean situation. Ha spent three weeks in August working with TOOK, a non-profit organization that helps North Korean refugees assimilate into South Korean culture through classes and lectures. Ha travelled to South Korea specifically to volunteer at the organization. He taught English to about 40 North Korean refugees, the majority of whom were women, in a classroom style setting. He spoke to them in Korean.

“It was my first experience being a teacher of any sort, and teaching English in Korean was hard enough,” Ha said. “But to teach it to a group of North Korean refugees who spoke a different dialect complicated the communication aspect of my teaching a bit more.”

Ha had to create his own class curriculum for the one hour that he taught the refugees on weekdays. His class was one of three to four they took every day, although he said he often found time after his class to speak with some of the refugees and even hear stories about their hardship.

One story that struck him was the story of a mother who left behind her abusive husband and two daughters. While living in North Korea, she and her daughters lived off of three kernels of corn for each meal, as her husband could not provide enough for the family from his job as a coal miner. She was often physically abused by her husband because of his frustration with their terrible living conditions. The mother of two decided to flee, escaping through China to Mongolia, eventually reaching South Korea.

“It was a really big shock to me because I thought I was just going to be teaching English, but I was instead also exposed to the plight of the North Korean refugees,” Ha said.

During his second week in Korea, Ha said he was so moved by the refugees stories that he believed others should be able to hear them as well.

He spoke with Mi Nyeo Shin, the president of TOOK, and she agreed their stories should be published. Shin and Ha held a writing event for those who wished to share their stories and submit them. Of the 20 refugees who wrote stories, seven were chosen to be published in the book “Escape & Assimilation: The Memoirs of North Korean Refugees.”

The Korean edition of the book was published later in 2010, while the translated English version was published this summer. Ha wrote an introduction for the book about his experiences with the refugees.

The organization is now handing the book out for free to anyone who wants a copy. Ha also plans on donating a few copies to the school library.

“I know a lot of people who just think of North Korea as human rights violators’ without understanding the gravity of the situation,” Ha said. “I hope this book gives people a glimpse of how serious the situation is and hopefully helps bring around change.”