Ju Chan-yang - what a mighty woman (Korea Times, January 14, 2014)

Ju Chan-yang - what a mighty woman

By Casey Lartigue, Jr.

I was honored to be a featured speaker at the second-annual Asia Liberty Forum, hosted by the Asia Center for Enterprise from Jan. 7-9 in New Delhi, India.

As much as I enjoyed speaking and, as part of the entertainment, rapping to my revised version of Salt N Pepa's 1990s song "Whattaman," that couldn't compare to the thrill I had being able to introduce and moderate the closing address that was given by North Korean refugee Ju Chan-yang.

I first met Chan-yang in March 2012 in Seoul at a rally protesting the repatriation of North Korean refugees from China to North Korea. She was then a recent escapee.

I didn't know then that she had been captured in China and held in a refugee prison in Thailand during her escape to freedom. She was freed, thanks to bribes paid by NGOs.

I did my best to set the context of her speech for those unfamiliar with the plight of North Koreans oppressed by the Kim dynasty.

One, as a teenager, she was making life-and-death decisions. She was subjected to constant questioning by North Korean police eager to incarcerate her because other family members escaped.

She lived on her own in North Korea for three years, working in a factory, unsure of her future, worried if she would suddenly be jailed if she answered a question from police incorrectly.

Two, she escaped after being captured and imprisoned, but let's remember there are many women like Chan-yang who get caught, sent back to North Korea, raped, abused, tortured, even executed.

Even her luck is bittersweet. She is a free woman, but she must think about things that never come to mind to those of us born into freedom.

For example, I reminded the audience that most of us had been inconvenienced by flights to New Delhi being canceled on Jan. 6 due to inclement weather.

For Chan-yang, leaving the airport to stay in Shanghai overnight forced her to return to the scene of her "crime." The "man-stealers and woman-whippers" of North Korea, to borrow a term from 19th century American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, have an agreement with China that would have brought smiles to the faces of slave owners and slave catchers throughout history.

North Korea still considers Chan-yang to be a criminal, a fugitive, for daring to steal herself away to freedom, and China returns freedom-seeking fugitives back to the prison known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The price of being born in North Korea means that she is never really free.

"There wasn't a dry eye in the audience," wrote Tom Palmer, a vice president at the DC-based Atlas Foundation. Participants at the Asia Liberty Forum heard the story of a young girl whose family planned to escape for years, motivated by illegal radio broadcasts they listened to secretly. 

Chan-yang offered to be the last to escape, reasoning that her father could make money abroad while she could survive in North Korea making extra money in North Korea's underground market.

Several times during the trip, she told me that she felt she was dreaming. She wasn't just watching an Indian movie (American and South Korean movies are banned, but North Koreans are allowed to watch Indian movies) ― she was in India.

She was thrilled to meet people from around the world, to know that people outside of Korea are concerned about the liberty of North Koreans ― not just, as she said, while motioning with her hands, the "talking, talking, talking" topics of nuclear bombs and dictators.

Once confined to worshipping the Kim dictators, she is now a free woman, trying new languages, food, and cultures with gusto.

It was quite a sight seeing her taking photo selfies with a bindi (the red spot Indian women wear on their foreheads) that she bought while shopping.

She has been speaking in English since 2012 ― four months of formal study overall, self-study and a host of volunteers (special thanks to teacher/speech coach Cho Joo-yeon, as well as teachers Matthew Feinberg and Johanna Poole).

In Seoul, she is on the verge of stardom, bringing new threats to her freedom requiring police protection. She is now a regular participant on a popular cable TV show featuring North Korean female refugees and is active in the NGO community assisting North Korean fugitives.

It is the common things that are blessings for her. She says there are some mornings she doesn't want to get out of bed when she hears her mother cooking, her father in the living room and siblings talking, because she fears she is dreaming.

In my opening remarks, I reminded the audience that I had rapped to the song "Whattaman." But I told them that after hearing Ju Chan-yang speak, they would be saying, "What a woman." 

The writer is the director for international relations at Freedom Factory Co. Ltd. in Seoul and a fellow with the Atlas Network in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at cjl@post.harvard.edu.