(Yonhap Feature) N.K. defector-writers speak out against Pyongyang's human rights abuses
By Kim Soo-yeon
SEOUL, Feb. 22 (Yonhap) -- North Korean defector Lee Gie-myung wrote plays in the North for about 20 years, but there was no freedom of expression as the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) never failed to censor his works.
In a country where literature is being used as a propaganda tool to praise North Korea's leader, Lee had to undergo inner conflict, suppressing his desire to express his thoughts as a writer.
"If you do not follow the WPK's guidelines, you could die in North Korea. I could not help but conform to the system for survival," said the 64-year-old Lee, who defected to South Korea in 2004. "But here, I am writing what I want to say -- stories about North Koreans' lives."
He is among North Korean defector-writers who are penning stories about the plights of North Koreans under the three-generation dictatorship of the Kim family and the regime's serious human rights abuses.
This photo released by Europe's news photo agency EPA on Nov. 8, 2016, shows Lee Gie-myung, chairman of the North Korean Writers in Exile PEN Center. (Yonhap)
A group of some 30 North Korean defector-writers, called the North Korean Writers in Exile PEN Center, is leading efforts to shed light on North Korea's dismal human rights situation through literature.
In 2012, the group became an official member of PEN International, an association of writers that promotes literature and freedom of expression. Lee, who started his literary career here in 2008, is now serving as the chairman of the center.
"North Koreans said that smoke shown after nuclear and missile tests remind them of the money which they made after toiling day and night," said Kim Jeong-ae, secretary-general of the center. Kim, who defected to Seoul in 2005, has been working as a writer since 2014.
North Korea has long been labeled one of the worst human rights violators in the world. The North does not tolerate dissent, holds hundreds of thousands of people in political prison camps and keeps tight control over outside information.
Pyongyang's human rights issue gained international spotlight on the back of a landmark report by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry released in early 2014.
The report calls for the U.N. Security Council to refer Pyongyang's "crimes against humanity" to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The U.N. General Assembly adopted a relevant resolution for the third straight year in 2016.
The defector-writers' group compiled 20 defectors' testimonies over Pyongyang's rights violations and requested the ICC in January to look into North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's crimes.
"Other defectors previously made a similar move. But beyond writing literary works, we've decided to take actions against the North's dire human rights records," Lee said.
According to records of the testimony, the husband of a North Korean female defector was publicly executed in front of his family on charges of cutting and stealing a telephone wire to trade it for food.
A female defector was beaten and sexually abused at a labor camp, to which she was sent after being forcefully repatriated following her escape. Youngsters were mobilized for illegal opium cultivation to help the North's leader collect governing funds.
"North Korea is the most horrible human rights violator. And its extensive crimes against humanity are still not fully revealed," Kim, 49, said.
North Korean defector-writer Kim Jeong-ae, secretary-general of the North Korean Writers in Exile PEN Center, poses for a photo during an interview with Yonhap News Agency on Feb. 8, 2017. (Yonhap)
Defector-writers are seeking to pen stories about North Korea, but South Korean readers are not paying much attention to their publication, apparently out of prejudice that their works may touch on only serious subjects or ideology.
South and North Korea still technically remain at war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
But in what could be a sign of unity in the literary circle, six defector-writers and seven South Korean authors jointly published a collection of short stories in January, tentatively named "A Story of Gold Nuggets."
It marked the second time that both sides teamed up following the release of a collection of stories in 2015, provisionally named "A Shadow Crossing the Border."
The latest collection touched upon stories spanning from ordinary North Koreans' poverty-stricken lives and human rights abuses to a sense of frustrations being felt after defections.
In Lee's novel, before dying at a prison camp, an elderly North Korean asks a young detainee to visit his house someday where two nuggets of gold are buried and to send his regards to his wife.
Kim's story is about a North Korean mother who defects to South Korea, leaving behind her husband, an avid party member, as she wishes to give a full bowl of steamed rice to her daughter.
"It is meaningful that defector-writers have begun to gain recognition," Lee said. "They are the ones who can speak up against North Korea's abject human rights situation in their own voices."
This photo taken on Feb. 8, 2017, shows a collection of short stories jointly published by defector-writers and South Korean authors, tentatively named "A Story of Gold Nuggets." (Yonhap)
The two writers stressed the importance of allowing more North Koreans to gain access to outside information to let them "awaken" to the truth of the North's regime.
"North Koreans will awaken and rise up if they get access to outside information," Lee said. "That's what Kim Jong-un would fear the most."
They expressed regret over South Korean readers' little interest in defectors' works at a time when foreign writers and publishers are paying attention to their publication on North Koreans' lives under the repressive regime.
A North Korean writer's collection of stories critical of the North Korean regime, "The Accusation," has recently won a PEN translation award from English PEN. The writer, only identified as his pen name Bandi, is known to be living in North Korea.
"When I met with foreign writers, they raised questions about South Korean readers' apathy toward defector-writers' works and North Korea's rights abuses," Kim said. "It is so regrettable, but I believe that things will change gradually."
They said that their works could help more South Korean readers think about Pyongyang's human rights records and inter-Korean unification.
"I will continue to focus on the issue of North Korean women's human rights," Kim said.
Lee said that he felt rewarded as defector-writers' works are gaining attention, expressing hope that he could be a best-selling writer someday.
"I think I have a sense of mission to pen stories about North Korea."