I have a friend who escaped North Korea with his sister about 10 years ago. He is not particularly fond of sharing his experiences in North Korea. He has no good stories about it, and he does not want to be looked as a North Korean. One of the stories he shared was about the flower swallow, North Korean street orphans. When I heard about it for the first time, I could not fathom what they are going through. However, as I researched more about them, it became clear to me that they have become disposable, forgotten not only by their own country but also by the international community.
My research project is controversial and sensitive. It is about the most vulnerable, unknown group in North Korea. Because of this reason, unraveling the mystery of their stories is not an easy process. First, there are not many published materials about the flower swallow. Especially, there is a dearth of the published materials in English. This means that it has not been fully researched by academia. Also, most of the materials heavily rely on the testimonies from North Korean defectors. Therefore, I needed to pay extra attention to the reliability of the sources that I found.
Initially, I wanted to interview from 10 to 15 North Korean defectors. However, due to the current escalating tension between North and South Korea, most of the defectors refused to be interviewed. They are trying to keep on a low profile in order for their families in both sides of Korea to be protected. However, I was able to meet a few people to hear their stories. Some of them cried and got upset while unfolding their stories. From time to time, they talked about things that left me utterly speechless. I have heard that North Korean people are suffering, but I did not know that it was this much.
Throughout my research, I found that the life of the flower swallows is worse than I expected. There are about 800,000 street orphans in North Korea. There are records that the government imprisons them as they are detrimental to the utopian image of communism. Of course, they are not treated well inside the concentration camp. Corporal punishment is rampant, and no one knows whether they are living in a decent environment. Outside the camp, children are still suffering. One defector told me that she saw a pile of dead children starved to death in a train station. The staff could not get rid of all the bodies, so he stacked them in the corner. Often time, they cross the border to find food or job. This make them vulnerable and exposed to the risk of human trafficking. Even though the situation is horrendous, the flower swallow rarely gets attention.
I strongly believe that we can only understand North Korea when looking at different aspects of North Korea. Without taking people into consideration, the country cannot be fully expounded, and the policies that we create to deter the country will be ineffective. For example, most of the defectors whom I interviewed were strongly against another economic sanctions against North Korea on the grounds that they will only kill innocent people. This shows that the actual North Korean citizens need to be incorporated in the policy-making process. However, this cannot be done without understanding them.
I am very thankful for the Laidlaw Internship Program which offered me an opportunity to research about the flower swallow. Also, I am thankful for Dr Ali Watson’s guidance and support. I am very excited to go to America in October for the meeting organized by Clinton Foundation to present my research.