More North Korean defectors step into the limelight

Tourists taking pictures of the scenic North Korean border from the observation deck outside Odusan Unification Observatory, which sits on a mountain range on the northernmost tip of Seoul.

Ms Clara Park is a North Korea native who makes her living introducing her homeland to tourists from around the world.

But instead of trumpeting its attractions like an ambassador, the wife of a former party cadre shares what it is like living on food waste and working for no pay in the reclusive state.

The 48-year-old is one of the four defectors now working for Panmunjom Travel Centre, the only agency in Seoul that takes tourists to meet a North Korean defector as part of its itinerary for tours to the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).

The question-and-answer session takes place at Odusan Unification Observatory, which overlooks Imjingang, the river that flows along the tense border.

Tourists are seated on child-sized furniture in a mock classroom adorned with wall portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, as a defector fields questions from the curious with the help of an English-speaking tour guide.

This job earns defectors like Ms Park an average of US$2,000 (S$2,560) a month - a good supplement to the generous benefits they already receive from the South Korean government. But they are not in it for the money, said their employer Kim Bong Ki, who served in the South Korean army for 23 years before starting his tour agency in 2001.

"Our defector staff have a sense of mission... They want to help bring about positive changes to their homeland," Mr Kim told The Sunday Times recently.

"That's why they are sharing the reality in North Korea despite facing a certain level of danger."

Ms Park and her colleagues are part of a growing community of defectors who are increasingly vocal about the hunger and torture they experienced in North Korea.

Both Mr Kang Chol Hwan and Mr Shin Dong Hyuk also brought to light their brutal suffering in North Korea's prison camps in their respective books: The Aquarium Of Pyongyang and Escape From Camp 14.

Mr Shin, who last year addressed a European Parliament conference, is so far the only escapee known to have been born in the North's notorious jail for political dissidents.

Growing up on a diet of corn porridge, soup and rats, he was constantly so hungry that whenever given a choice between hunger and beating as punishment, he would always opt for beating.

As a child, he was so jealous to find his mother cooking rice - an extremely rare treat - for his brother one night that he turned both of them in for conspiring to escape, leading to their executions right before his eyes.

Other civilian defectors have stepped into the limelight in other ways. Ms Kim Ha Na, for instance, shared her odyssey while competing on a reality show, Masterchef Korea. Ms Lee Hyeon Seo made a mark at the global TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference last year, sharing her struggle with identity issues.

As for Ms Park, "I see tourists as my messengers", she told The Sunday Times via her English-speaking colleague Jason Kim.

"I hope they will walk away with a better understanding of my pain, and tell the world on my behalf about the necessity of reunification."

She added: "I strongly believe reunification is the only way to stop the North Korean tragedy."

The cool-headed Ms Park escaped from the North in 2011, with her only child, a teenaged daughter, after plotting her route for more than two years without her husband's knowledge.

"I could not bring this up to him... We think very differently," Ms Park said in response to a tourist's question on why she had left without her husband. He has since been forced into early retirement, according to Ms Park's friends from the North.

Some 26,100 North Koreans have resettled in the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, latest figures from Seoul's Unification Ministry show.


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