TABITHA THEARD WRITES — Rice, water bottles, and bicycle tubes are not usually seen as political statements, but in South Korea, activists are using these items to inspire hope and encourage more North Koreans to become defectors and flee their country.
According to Fars Ghani from Aljazeera, approximately 31,000 North Koreans have defected into South Korea since the end of the Korean War—including Kim Yong-hwa. After being accused of not being loyal to the state, Kim fled to China to save his life. He experienced numerous hardships there because of his defector status, constantly being pursued by authorities and placed in multiple jails in every country he would flee to—including China, Japan, Vietnam and Laos. After 13 years of fleeing authorities and starving in prisons, he settled in South Korea in 2001 and began his career as the “Father of Defectors.”
In 2005, Kim founded the North Korean Refugees Human Rights Association of Korea after an incident in which a female defector died in a car accident and her body was placed in a refrigerator for 20 days; she wasn’t even given a funeral. Kim was angered by the lack of humanity shown towards defectors and people fleeing dangerous situations in their home countries. So, he made it his priority to bring more attention to defectors’ living conditions. He has provided study spaces for young defectors and children born to North Koreans, as well as sent resources to both North Koreans and defectors abroad.
In a recent article published by NKNews.org, Kim discusses how he uses water bottles to impact change in North Korea. After gathering rice donations from various rice farmers throughout South Korea, Kim and his fellow volunteers package the rice into water bottles along with medicine and USBs with Korean television shows downloaded to them. When they are packed and secured, the volunteers gather on the Gwanghwa Island and throw the water bottles into the West Sea. They then flow up shore to the Hwanghae and Kangwon Provinces, where information access and freedom of movement is even more restricted than in the rest of North Korea. In the past, he hid bicycle tubes in balloons and sent them across the border. This was because he saw a father and son riding the tubes, inflated, floating their way to Baengnyeong Island. He realized, “that the scores of tubes that [he] sent could save people’s life and give them freedom.”
Of all the items he sends, the rice is the most important. According to a video posted on Instagram by The Guardian, a typical North Korean would have to work 40 days to afford 1kg of rice. North Koreans need on average 58 kg of rice per year to sustain themselves. Therefore, without food supplements, the average North Korean has a good chance of malnourishment or even starvation.
Kim hopes to bring more attention to his cause and inspire other organizations to do more for North Koreans.