Roseville woman seeks to help North Korean refugees

A view of the Korean Demilitarized Zone as seen from the Dora Observatory in 2006 from the South Korean side. The roughly 160-mile-long DMZ has divided North and South Korea following the 38th parallel since the 1953 armistice agreement. Large numbers of troops are still stationed on either side of the line, today. (Pamela O’Meara/Review)
A view of the Korean Demilitarized Zone as seen from the Dora Observatory in 2006 from the South Korean side. The roughly 160-mile-long DMZ has divided North and South Korea following the 38th parallel since the 1953 armistice agreement. Large numbers of troops are still stationed on either side of the line, today. (Pamela O’Meara/Review)
Hyon Kim
Hyon Kim

Mindful of her own Korean refugee background and the effects of her rocky start in life, Roseville resident Hyon Kim says she wants to help refugees who have escaped from North Korea after facing great difficulties, including sex trafficking, forced marriage and torture.

Now a long-time American citizen and successful business woman approaching age 70, Kim created an organization called Freedom for North Korean Refugees Minnesota. The organization is holding a symposium on North Korean refugees Monday, Oct. 19 at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

Family separation

By chance, Kim’s family was among the hundreds of thousands split between North and South Korea during the Korean War, which broke out in 1950. At the time, a 4-year-old Kim and her grandmother were visiting an aunt in the South while her father, a well-known communist intellectual, mother and brothers fled Seoul for the North, fearing the advance of the U.S. Army led by General Douglas MacArthur.

Her grandmother had taken her far into the mountains of southeast Korea away from soldiers of either side. Her father promised in a letter to go back for her in a few months but the border closed permanently and the family was forever split up.

Though an armistice was signed in 1953 at the end of the Korean War, diplomatic relations between the North and South have been incredibly tense since. If not for her trip with her grandmother, Kim might be living in North Korea today.

Kim says she felt abandoned by her parents, but her aunt adopted and raised her, giving her a better lineage than that of her communist father.

At age 16, Kim joined the Republic of Korea’s women’s army to earn some money while she finished high school, taking further training at night. At age 19, she got a civilian job in the security office of the U.S. Eighth Army doing translating and administrative duties.

She met her future husband there, married him and in 1970 at age 24, moved to Fridley to be with him. Her aunt joined them in 1973, but Kim never heard anything about her family that remained in North Korea.

Eventually, she and her husband divorced. Working as a bartender and in several different Roseville restaurants, she raised their two sons and earned a degree in business from the University of Minnesota.

She started several businesses, including MN Best, Inc. in 2007, a small company in Roseville that manages construction projects, including bridges and highways with MnDOT. Her two sons work there, too.

In recent years, she served a term on the Board of Regents for the University of Minnesota and on the boards of many other organizations, including the national YWCA and the Minnesota Council of Churches. She was named one of Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal's "Top 25 Women to Watch." She is currently a member of the Roseville Rotary Club.

"I am so blessed and I thank God for where I am, and my company's doing well," she says, adding proudly, "I love U.S.A."

Visit to North Korea

During a four-day trip to North Korea in 1990 to visit her mother and two brothers, she learned that her father had been killed in 1956 in a purge of intellectuals. Kim also learned more about the plight of those living in North Korea and those who had escaped to China, and eventually to South Korea. She acknowledges that there are plenty of refugees now from other countries but this is where she can best use her experience and talents.

She said that after enduring years of starvation, some 300,000 North Koreans have managed to escape to neighboring China, only to face sex trafficking, rape and if caught by authorities, being sent back to North Korea or to jail. To avoid being caught, some walk to Laos, Thailand or Mongolia through the Gobi Desert.

Seventy percent are women, often with children as a result of rape or forced marriage. North Korean men are more closely watched and have to check in for work. Some manage to make it to South Korea where they can legally resettle. While a 2004 U.S. law gives North Koreans automatic citizenship, Kim says it can take three years of living in a refugee camp while waiting for the paperwork to get done.

"I want our country to be a little more open-doored to refugees who want to come here," she says. "The refugees are very able people...The U.S. should give better options to accept more refugees. Three years is a long time to wait."

Kim was chair of the Peace and Justice Committee at Hennepin United Methodist Church and also on United Methodist Women Leadership team, said church member Janet Jacobs, of Roseville. "Our focus is mission to women children and youth. I know she has been working on this symposium for over a year," Jacobs says.

Being involved in refugee resettlement at her church, Kim began wondering if North Korean refugees would be welcome here as people from other nations. She traveled to South Korea to see how they were handling refugees from the North, and heard these heart-breaking stories.

Help wanted from Minnesota

"So many people don’t know about North Korea so I’m bringing in people for the symposium to tell what’s going on there," Kim says.

"We also want to educate Americans about how China is brutalizing those who do flee and to bring awareness of the plight of all the refugees still in China illegally, working in the underground economy." she adds.

In Minnesota, people care for peace and human rights, Kim says. The Minnesota Council of Churches has been involved with resettling refugees from elsewhere and many other local organizations have helped as well. Kim says she would like to see the same happen with North Korean refugees.

She says she hopes the outcome of the symposium will be desperately-needed support and aid for safe and humane resettlement of North Korean refugees in Minnesota and elsewhere in the U.S., so they can have a good life like she does here.

"Our country is one of the best in the world because we are trying to correct problems," she says. "There's more hope."

Pamela O'Meara can be reached at pomeara@lillienews.com or 651-748-7818.


If you go...

Freedom for North Korean Refugees Minnesota will host a symposium on Monday, Oct. 19 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, 309 19th Ave. S., on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities Campus, to raise awareness of the plight of North Korean refugees, specifically those living in China, and to influence public policy on their behalf.

Speakers will include state representative and human rights advocate Keith Ellison; Jack Rendler, chair of World Without Genocide and former director of Amnesty International; Dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs Eric Schwartz, who worked with refugees for the U.S. State Department; testimonials from former North Korean refugees; and several people involved in a South Korean TV show about family members trying to reunite.

Tickets cost $25  or $35 at the door and include both a continental breakfast and a Korean lunch. Tickets for students are $15.

For more information or to register, contact Aisha Baker at 612-222-7138 or aisha.baker@freedomrefugeesmn.org.

 

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