With an online platform, and some training in how to use it, North Korean refugees around the world could help each other, and maybe draw attention to the struggles North Koreans face both inside and out of their native land.
At least that’s Betsy Kawamura’s theory, and she knows something about trauma, and what happens when it goes unaddressed.
Kawamura has been working with North Korean refugees for a little more than a decade, and conceived of the idea of an online forum after hearing of the exploitation they had experienced in escaping.
“From this I realized that if there were more women, more refugees … who might extend these stories to me it’d be great to have their stories in one place,” she said.
In 2012 she founded Women4NonViolence, and has been advocating for such a medium in meetings with academics, activists and media.
But the story of her effort to draw attention to women’s exploitation begins much earlier than that. Though born in the U.S., Kawamura spent much of her youth in Okinawa, where her father worked as a contractor. Here, in her pre-teen years, not long before returning to the States, a middle-aged Caucasian man sexually assaulted her on several occasions. She remembers him wearing civilian clothes, but believes he may have been working for the U.S. military.
He spoke openly of assaulting other young girls in the area, including his own daughter. This ordeal didn’t end until her family returned to America when she was 13 and, as far as she knows, he was never caught.
For some time it appeared this trauma would not deter her, having graduated near the top of her class at the University of Hawaii in 1983, earning an MBA, starting a career in pharmaceuticals and relocating to Europe.
Then, one day about 20 years after her assault, she had what she describes as a traumatic emotional episode, so severe as to leave her living on the street. Eventually she returned to the U.S., where she was hospitalized. The doctors treating her never made the connection between the breakdown and the abuse she’d received as a child. However, nearly two years after the ordeal began she began to, in her words, experience healing, thanks to the help of fellow survivors of gender-based violence.
There is little doubt in Kawamura’s mind, though, that these two traumas were related, and after her recovery she became committed to supporting women who’ve been through similar ordeals. She became particularly interested in helping North Korean refugee women, after meeting several of them in 2001.
North Korea was described in a 2010 report from the U.S. Department of State as a “source country for men, women, and children who are subjected to trafficking in persons, specifically forced labor and forced prostitution.”
Still, like much else about the country, an information barrier prevents more from being learned: the 2013 edition of the Global Slavery Index, published by the Walk Free Foundation, did not rank the North. A spokesperson with the foundation told NK News that this was because they were “unable to gather any data.”
“We would obviously like to include North Korea in next year’s Index but need to access some primary data sources first,” the spokesperson said.
Kawamura has worked with those who have escaped, and she sees numerous parallels between their stories and hers.
“When (female refugees) are being brought over through China those who transfer them expect sex,” she said. “ (One refugee) said that her traffickers made them sleep in a room and they all expected them to have sex with the guards.”
Having talked to many refugees, Kawamura describes her experiences with sexual violence as a youth as “mild” in comparison to theirs. And those who settle in China and find their husbands frequently find themselves on the receiving end of abuse.
“If you have a Chinese husband there’s no exit unless they run away but that’s very hard when they have children,” she said.
Since near the beginning of the last decade she’s been committed to her cause. A little more than three years ago she settled on the project of assembling the stories of a North Korean women in one place after a meeting with several families who have settled in the UK.
“In England, unlike South Korea there are hardly any organizations for (North Korean) refugees,” she said. However, it appears to her that refugees who’ve settled outside South Korea often feel freer in speaking out, as the South’s Ministry of Unification tends to control the message the public hears regarding defectors.
“From (meeting the refugees) I realized that if there were more women, more refugees like her who might extend these stories to me it’d be great to have their stories in one place,” Kawamura said.
“My mission is to have the refugees – both men and women – from different parts of the world have this dialogue so they can share their ideas on how to catalyze peace on the Korean Peninsula via non-violent ways,” she said. This, she said, would place pressure on immigration officials in countries where the defectors have had difficulty settling. And furthermore, they would be able to share their experiences from all over the world, potentially helping in their day-to-day lives.
These days she speaks at functions, to media outlets and with academics to raise support for the tentatively titled Voice of Free North Korea project. This would create a site online where North Korean women and men would be free to share the experiences they’ve endured while escaping the North in safe circumstances. In addition to raising awareness of their experiences, she envisions the forum being of assistance to defectors refugees regardless of where they have settled. Though it may begin with refugees who’ve settled in the UK, it would eventually expand to serve defectors around the world, sharing their stories of adapting to a variety of new countries and cultures.
Once the site is provided, she hopes to recruit media professionals who will train refugees in how to tell their stories most effectively. Her work in helping North Korean refugee women has received the support of organizations and individuals in Europe and North America, including the Nobel Women’s Initiatives in Canada, she said. However, the site would probably begin with refugees located in the UK, gradually expanding to serve those in other countries where large numbers of them have settled.
Those with the necessary English abilities – or at least the willingness to learn it – would receive media and storytelling training allowing them to convey their experiences. Also, she’s looking for a particular outlook; while she understands the viewpoint of defectors in South Korea who send anti-DPRK leaflets across the border, her desired approach is more conciliatory.
“It’s very difficult to enter an embassy on a warpath,” Kawamura said. “I’d rather be invited to talk to officials, rather than try to bang the door down.”
In addition to monetary contributions, the project can be helped by spreading the word. Escaped North Koreans have settled in so many countries, she said, that one could be just “a stone’s throw away,” she said.
More can be learned about the project and how to help with it by emailing Kawamura at [email protected].