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Freedmen from North Korea (in the Korea Times)

One of the most memorable times I have had in South Korea was to go singing with some new friends who had escaped from North Korea--and getting them to dance along with me as I rapped to Will Smith's 1998 hit "Gettin' Jiggy With It." I think of that night whenever I hear such escapees referred to as "defectors."

Calling them "defectors" is another victory for semantic infiltration. That process--identified by American diplomat Fred Ikle and popularized by former U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan--occurs when ideological and political opponents get their adversaries to use their language. During the Cold War, Soviet propagandists concocted-- and Westerners eventually adopted--terms such as "people`s democracies," "wars of national liberation," and "liberation movements." There are similar semantic battles in politics today ("1 percent versus the 99 percent" and "neoliberal") with the goal of putting opponents on the defensive by changing the terms of debate.

Politicians and international organizations may use the term "defector" for diplomatic or legal reasons or to describe high-level government officials or activists who go to another country for political reasons. That's not relevant to most people just seeking a better life and freedom abroad.

A defector is defined as someone who gives up allegiance to one state or political entity in exchange for allegiance to another. "Defection" is the physical act of defection, usually in a manner which violates the laws of the nation or political entity from which the person is seeking to depart.

When that place is North Korea, which doesn't recognize the right of that person to migrate and demands allegiance at the point of a gun, to borrow a phrase from the late Christopher Hitchens, North Korea is the definition of hell because you can't live (a good life) there, but they won't let you leave.

North Koreans don't have what former slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass called "the right of locomotion." That`s why scenes of North Koreans crying over the deaths of Kim Jong-Il last year and Kim Il-Sung in 1994 should be disregarded: The people can't live and they can't leave.

In his 1970 book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, economist Albert Hirschman discussed ways that people respond to failing organizations. In short, they flee, adapt or attempt to change the system from within. Clearly, North Korean citizens can't change the system from within. They can't live with it. So they flee. Trying to flee when they can't live gets them labeled as defectors.

Freedom lovers--and by that, I mean people who don't block the voluntary choices of peaceful people to migrate or engage in peaceful exchanges with others--have unwittingly also been using the term "defector." So what's the right term? What`s the term being used here in Seoul?

The South Korean government has changed its terminology over the past few decades, according to a paper by the International Crisis Group. In the 1970s and 1980s, the term in Korean applied to someone who "submits or surrenders." In the 1990s, it became "a person escaping from the North." Around 2005, it became "people in a new place." Since 2008, the term has been "citizens who escaped from North Korea."

My suggestion? I no longer use or acknowledge the diplomatic terms of "defector," or "asylum seeker" for non-political people. I now just call them "travelers" or "expatriates." Or, "freedmen" as former American slaves were described. Like other travelers and expats, people escaping from North Korea are seeking freedom to live their lives as they wish. That can even include the freedom to dance to "Gettin' Jiggy With It" in Seoul.

Casey Lartigue, Jr., is director of International Relations at the Center for Free Enterprise ( in Seoul and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association in Washington, D.C.

This article was originally published in the Korea Times on March 5, 2012.
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