North Korea is a pending issue for contemporary politics and politicians, a debate that has been recently brought to the fore by US President Donald Trump on the occasion of his meeting with Xi Jinping, president of the Communist regime that currently occupies mainland China. North Korea is not only the most secretive state, but also one of the few Communist dictatorships left in the world –a radical and rather eccentric version of similar countries such as Laos, Vietnam, and the People’s Republic of China. Hong Kong, which is under the jurisdiction of the latter since 1997, has been witness to numerous sorrowful events, which include but are not limited to local booksellers kidnapped in foreign soil by Chinese authorities, banning discussion on localist and independence politics from educational institutions, or the more recent rigged election which ensured Beijing’s preferred candidate Carrie Lam position as new Chief Executive, and which was immediately followed by a police crack-down on Hong Kong pro-democracy leaders.
Given these recent developments, I was delighted to discover not only the existence of a Hong Kong branch of Students For Liberty, but also to have the opportunity to listen to Miss Yeonmi Park’s Journey to Freedom from North Korea to China, where she became victim of human trafficking, and from China to the free world. A delight that was soon to be marred by lack of organization of the Hong Kong branch and their total negligence in promoting SFL and their liberty values. Before focusing on Miss Yeonmi Park’s heartbreaking story, I shall start with a brief review of these shortcomings.
The conference took place on April 4 at the Diocesan Boys’ School in Kowloon, Hong Kong, a place not easy to find for non-local visitors due to its hidden location on the top of a small hill. It didn’t help that no notice, poster, or banner was to be found outside or inside of the school premises. Only two small pieces of paper stuck to a wall in front of the school hall modestly announced the event, but no mention was made on them of Students For Liberty as the organizers. Likewise, no banner or sign of SFL decorated the empty, red stand selling Yeonmi Park’s books at the reception hall, and the staff, as helpful as friendly, was dressed in black with a Yeonmi Park’s T-Shirt without any distinctive logo. At some point, I truly wondered if I was in the wrong place. Indeed, I was the only person in the whole event with a T-shirt of SFL.
Once at the conference hall, a big screen confirmed that this was indeed Yeonmi Park’s talk and, for the first time, the logotype of
Hong Kong Students For Liberty was present in the screen, together with other organizers such as 2047 HK Monitor, Justice Centre Hong Kong, or American Women’s Association. SFL logo was, however, the only one without a name identifying it, so those unfamiliar with the organization would hardly recognize it. The event did not only start with a huge delay of almost one hour due to poor arrangement and the organizers’ inability to deal with over 800 guests: once Hong Kong SFL president Mr. Lewis Lo took the floor to speak, he asked the audience to come down for book signing before the talk started –this caused an avalanche of over 100 people who rushed down and queued up for half an hour, whereas the rest of the audience waited as they voiced out their dissatisfaction. In consequence, book signing was utterly cancelled and people stormed back to their seats in discomfort. The conference, which was supposed to start at 15:30, was finally delayed until 16:30.
The speaker who accompanied Miss Yeonmi Park and who presented Mr. Lewis Loo immediately after –his name escapes me– made a very short introduction to SFL, wrongly stating that Mr. Lewis Loo was the president and founder of the original US-based Students For Liberty, instead of the Hong Kong branch. This was to be followed by Mr. Lewis’ own statement on the group, but due to his previous mistakes he decided to air his apology instead, and nothing about Students For Liberty was said, before or after the event. Needless to say, no information was provided to the audience about Students For Liberty, its history or mission, or how to contact or join the pro-liberty network. This was a wasted chance not only for Hongkongers, but also for many students from China who attended the event, and who could have learnt about individual freedom and free market.
In contrast with the poor arrangements of the organizers, Miss Yeonmi’s performance was exemplary, despite the absence of a proper microphone stand or a chair. She spoke of the brainwashing North Koreans had to endure under Kim Jong-il, the imprisonment in concentration camps and the hunger that gnaws at both their stomachs and their souls. It is a society where dictionaries do not have a word for love or depression, because those terms are out of place in the egalitarian Socialist paradise that is North Korea. Even love, for those who are left without it, becomes a dangerous emotion that, in the Leviathan state, may stir unhappiness and revolution.
Miss Yeonmi’s real nightmare started when her father was arrested for illegal trading, a flourishing industry in a country where the government dictates every aspect of the lives of their citizens. A once wealthy family soon became impoverished and, faced with hunger and illness, Miss Yeonmi decided to follow her sister’s steps and escape from North Korea. But little did she know that hell was about to break loose once more: Miss Yeonmi and her mother were sold to human traffickers in the Chinese border and, while the former was raped in front of her, a young 13 years old Yeonmi became a mistress of an unknown man. This is, according to her, a common business in the border, where many mentally handicapped Chinese men unable to find a wife in their hometown pay for a North Korean girl on the run.
Late in 2008, Miss Yeonmi found a Christian shelter and was forced to become a Christian in order to receive aid from Chinese missionaries. This was, according to her, not so difficult, since she only needed to recall her previous belief in Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and substitute them with God and Jesus. In February 2009 she and her mother finally left to Mongolia. There they were arrested and finally sent back to South Korea, where they received asylum. Since then, she has become an ardent activist for human rights and an advocate for victims of human trafficking. Her poignant, moving speech ended up with a note of despair: “Do not worry about me. I am safe now. But worry about the 25 million people who remain in North Korea”.
There were a few interesting points that are worth mentioning here. North Koreans believe, despite their current situation, that their fat, well-fed Dear Leaders are as hungry as them, sacrificing themselves day after day due to the “American bastards” and the “Japanese imperialists”. Such is the power of the cradle-to-the-grave propaganda North Koreans are exposed to, and we should remember that such a power cannot be faced with rational arguments. Socialism appeals to emotions, not to intellect.
During the Q&A session someone asked about Miss Yeonmi’s perception on foreigners visiting North Korea, a tourism trend in today’s Hong Kong. Miss Yeonmi’s answer probably surprised everyone: “Would you visit WWII Auschwitz as a tourist to see the Jewish victims of the concentration camps?” “Would you bow in front of Hitler’s statue?” Because any foreigner visiting North Korea is forced to bow in front of the image of Korean leaders. What we foreigners often see as a colorful tourist attraction or as a mere joke, is later displayed on public TV to show North Koreans how people from all over the world kneel to and recognize the authority and godliness of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
On a final note, Miss Yeonmi tried to explain what can be done and how North Koreans who wish to leave the regime can be helped out. “China should open the border.” This being true, however, it is very unlikely that the Chinese government, a light version of the same dictatorship she escaped from in North Korea, is going to care magically about the lives of North Korean refugees. It is even more unlikely that, if Chinese authorities let North Korean refugees in, they will not fall prey to human trafficking and corrupt officials. A wolf is a wolf, even if it hasn’t eaten your sheep yet.
On the whole, Miss Yeonmi’s presentation saved an otherwise overpriced event marked by poor management and carelessness. Hong Kong Students For Liberty has a long way to go before achieving the importance and credibility of its European and American counterparts. Personally, I am rather surprised by their lack of activity, both in social networks and in their website, and the absolute absence of any controversial topic related to the erosion of liberty in Hong Kong, the intrusion of China in the individual liberties of Hongkongers, or the problems free market has been facing in the past few years. It is as if Hong Kong Students For Liberty was intentionally trying to keep a low-profile to please the authorities, a strategy employed by some former advocators of the Umbrella Revolution who have now become part of the new pro-Beijing government of Carrie Lam.
Hong Kong is not, or at least it is not anymore, the capitalist paradise reported year after year by the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. And whereas Hongkongers call Singapore a richer North Korea, Hong Kong is soon to become a richer, yet less free, China. Let’s hope for the best.