Minnesota Businesswoman Focused on Refugees as North Korea Crisis Looms
Michael Ireland - Assist News

Michael Ireland - Assist News

A Minnesota woman whose father was killed by current North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un’s grandfather (Kim Il-Sung) is asking for help in her effort to help North Korean refugees as the military and political crisis continues on the Korean Peninsula.

Hyon (Yahn) Kim is a former University of Minnesota regent who has family still trapped in North Korea. From her home in the Twin Cities suburbs, Hyon Kim runs a charity aimed at helping North Korean refugees escape the regime, according to Esme Murphy in a report for CBS-affiliate TV station WCCO.

Hyon Kim says she has never been more scared not only for those her own family members and millions of others who live under the North Korean regime, but also for those in South Korea where anxiety is mounting over a nuclear threat.

In a comfortable, Twin Cities home, the 71-year-old grandmother can’t stop watching the news from Korea. “I don’t sleep at night lately,” she said.

Hyon Kim has lived the nightmare of her family being destroyed by the North Korean regime.  “Kim Jong Un’s grandfather killed my father,” she said.

In the chaos of 1950s Cold War Korea, her family was separated. She was only 4 years old and was left behind in South Korea while the rest of her family made the fateful mistake of going to the north.

She made her way to Minnesota in the 1970s and was allowed back to see her family in North Korea once in 1990. It was then she learned of her father’s execution by the North Korean regime. “In the middle of the night, they told me they killed my father,” Hyon Kim said.

In the years since, she learned that her mother and one of her brothers died of starvation in the North. Her life in the U.S. led to a degree from the University of Minnesota, a successful business and being made a U of M Regent. She even met with then-First Lady Hillary Clinton – but the people of Korea are never far from her mind. “I think it is a very dangerous time,” she said.

That’s why she formed the charity Freedom North Korean Refugees of Minnesota to try and help those who have escaped the north to either South Korea or China. She said: “My focus is freedom for North Korean refugees.”

North Korean execution

Hyon Kim says her biggest concern is for an estimated 300,000 North Korean refugees living underground in China. She says if these refugees are discovered by Chinese authorities, they are often returned to North Korea to face certain death.

Hyon Kim left her native Korea decades ago, but a childhood marred by the country’s division has continued to haunt the Twin Cities entrepreneur, according to an October 2015 (Minneapolis) Star Tribune newspaper report.

In recent years, Kim’s dramatic story has fueled an uncommon campaign to help North Korean refugees, particularly those who face exploitation and sexual assault in China. That campaign culminated at the University of Minnesota in a recent symposium that highlighted firsthand accounts of refugees, and which challenged the United States to do more to address their plight.

“I wanted to do something for my homeland,” said Kim. “It’s a very slow movement, but I am breaking the ice.”

Kim was 4 in 1951 when her father fled Seoul for the North. The U.S. military was advancing on the city, and he feared he would be targeted as a well-known leftist intellectual. He took her mother and brothers with him, but Kim was visiting an aunt in the countryside. She said her father left a note promising to return for her. But the border between North and South Korea was closed, and he never did.

Kim’s aunt raised her and adopted her. In 1970, Kim came to Minnesota with her then-husband, an American she had met while working for the U.S. military in Seoul. She went on to run several businesses, including a St. Paul civil engineering firm, and served on the U’s Board of Regents.

Kim Il sung leading troops

In 1990, she traveled to North Korea and briefly reunited with her family. She was eager to confront her father about abandoning her, only to find out he had been killed in a North Korean purge of intellectuals in the 1950s.

In recent years, Kim has channeled her complicated feelings about her homeland into an effort to better understand the situation of North Korean defectors. The experience brought her healing, she said. She traveled to South Korea three times to meet with North Koreans who fled by way of China.

Because China doesn’t recognize these defectors as refugees and deports them, they are at the mercy of the men they pay to help them cross into the country. Hence the well-publicized accounts of rape, sex trafficking and economic exploitation.

“I heard so many terrible stories,” Kim said.

North Koreans able to continue on to Thailand or Laos can apply for resettlement to the United States, but the process takes years. Through the recent symposium, Kim hoped to advocate for speedier resettlement and more U.S. pressure on China to recognize North Korean refugees. She would like to see North Korean arrivals in Minnesota, where she notes many Hmong refugees have thrived since families first arrived in the 1980s.

Eric Schwartz, dean of the U’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and an authority on refugee issues, said the treatment of North Korean defectors in China has failed to get the international attention that it merits.

“The human rights situation in North Korea is dire,” said Schwartz, who spoke at the symposium. “It has caused so many people to flee into a very precarious situation across the border with China.”

To learn more about the symposium and Kim’s work, visit www.freedomrefugeesmn.org.

Image courtesy CBS