January 20, 2019 | ° F

Keynote speaker gives firsthand account of human rights violations in North Korea

Photo by Elizabeth Reynes |

The University's Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights hosted Austin Hyeon, a North Korean expatriate on Saturday night in the Rutgers Academic Building. Hyeon escaped from the country's worsening situation at 12 years old, only to be imprisoned in China and transported back to a North Korean children's prison.

Rutgers' Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights recently held their Voices of North Korean Dissent lecture. 

The keynote speaker was Austin Hyeon, who is a North Korean expatriate. Hyeon is currently studying political science at Columbia University, making him the school's first student of North Korean descent.

Hyeon and his parents escaped from North Korea in 1999 when he was 12 years old. 

At that time, the United States and other Western countries had begun imposing harsher sanctions on North Korea in response to the country's efforts to renew its nuclear program. At the same time, the Eastern European communist bloc countries that had previously provided aid to North Korea were collapsing, causing an unprecedented economic depression in North Korea.

“One night the electricity went out and it didn't come back for a couple of months. I don't remember it clearly, but slowly you figure out that your bowl of rice is getting smaller, and students couldn't come to school," Hyeon said. "I was only eight or nine, but slowly I realized that something was going on. Because the government couldn't provide food and necessities, people were beginning to die.”

Hyeon's parents decided to escape to China. They organized an escape route with other defectors and managed to cross the border, he said. 

Hyeon said that he was amazed by the comforts of Chinese life. One meal in China was more food than a North Korean had in an entire day. The house he was staying in was a five-minute drive from North Korea, and yet the quality of life was incomparably better.

A Chinese man who was harboring Hyeon and his family gave him videotapes of South Korean TV dramas, he said. 

Hyeon said that in these shows the actors were speaking Korean, but the way they lived was completely alien to what he had known in North Korea. Hyeon said that this was when he realized what it would mean to live in a free world.

As an illegal refugee, Hyeon could not go to school or make friends and said that whenever he left the house, he risked being arrested and repatriated. In order to blend in, he learned Chinese, but was caught and imprisoned after two years.

“In the Chinese prison I realized that there was something I couldn't deny, that I couldn't erase from my background,” Hyeon said. “I was born in North Korea and I have Korean blood in my body. Even though I was speaking Chinese fluently, I still had the North Korean identity. And now I am in a prison cell because of my identity.”

A week later he was handcuffed, blindfolded and driven back to North Korea, he said. There he was brought to a youth prison. His cellmate was a girl whose feet had been cut off at the ankles.

“I immediately knew that if I stayed here longer something was going to happen to me too,” Hyeon said. “So I decided to escape. But how could I?”

After the guards left that night, he said that he prayed for help.

The next day a guard brought Hyeon outside. The guard told him to wait while he went to take a nap. Compared to the main camp, the children's prison was lacking in security and there was a broken wall. Hyeon said that he snuck to the broken wall, then jumped through and ran.

“I didn't look back because I was so afraid,” he said. “No one discovered me, no one was yelling at me, no one was shooting at me. I believe that God helped me out of prison.”

The prison was close to the Chinese border, so he said that he hid in a secluded area for two days, then crossed the border alone.

A year later Hyeon learned that his mother had escaped to China as well, and they reunited. His father had gotten sick in prison and died soon after being released.

In 2005 Hyeon and his mother moved to South Korea with the help of Chinese missionaries. There he began high school at the age of 18, he said. 

Now Hyeon has been in the United States for six years. He said that he chose to study political science so that he could work to solve North Korea's political dysfunction.

“My passion is always for my people. This is my philosophy for myself. As a human being, I could have lived for myself. I could have majored in statistics or computer science or economics. Each person has different values and a different passion for their subject," he said. "But for me, studying political science is very special because I wanted to understand the political systems of the world and gain wisdom and knowledge to analyze North Korea's system ... I don't know what I'm gonna do in the next six months or one year, but definitely, I will find an opportunity to be part of a group bringing changes to North Korea.”

Max Marcus is a School of Arts and Sciences senior. He is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.

Max Marcus

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