10 North Korean Defectors Get a Taste of the Silicon Valley at Google Illicit Networks Summit

Last month, Google hosted a conference in Westlake Village, California on the topic of how technology could be used to disrupt illicit networks globally, including trafficking of humans, arms, organs, etc. This conference was co-sponsored by Council of Foreign Affairs and Tribeca Film Festival. Check out all the videos of panels and speakers at the INFO (Illicit Networks Forces in Opposition) Summit here.

Ranging from the regime’s elite party members to the country’s forgotten orphans, ten North Korean defectors flew in from Seoul to join us at the INFO conference. Each shared parts of his/her extraordinary story of survival and excruciatingly painful quest for freedom. Their experiences, individually and collectively, is a testament to the invincibility of human resilience and spirit. I had the opportunity to invite and  work with this team of ten for the past seven months to prepare for the conference -- from arranging flight tickets (which was a nightmare) to crafting the North Korean panel and lab agenda -- and I wish I could share every detail with you all. Since no one has the time for that, I will share some paraphrased stories and personal take-aways from the four days I spent with this team in Westlake Village, California.

Border guard who defected. Kim was a border guard (about 5 feet 4 inches tall) who was trained to shoot to kill North Koreans attempting to escape into China. (Defection is a highly treasonous crime that warrants sentences to prison camps or execution. Relatives are also punished per the state’s guilt-by-association policy.) He used to let some defectors pass when no guard was watching, an act that put his family at risk. A close friend once begged for Kim to let a poor orphan pass into China. Even after heated arguments with his wife, who insisted that her husband not engage in a bribeless illicit act, Kim let the defector pass. Months after, Kim defected himself. He crossed the Tumen River, and for ten full minutes, he sobbed for the first time, feeling unbearably guilty for betraying his country. A year later, he sent for his wife and four year-old son, both of whom live with him in Seoul now.

The orphan that Kim let pass into China is “Paul,” who also joined us at INFO. Check out the article I wrote about him at INFO here.

Free as nature. On the second night of the conference, the 250 participants sat at assigned tables for dinner. Against a beautiful backdrop of mountains, trees, and a constructed waterfall, I sat next to Mrs. Lee, a former elite party member who bragged about being overweight while living in Pyongyang to show off that she used to be part of the wealthy elite class (she now runs a small restaurant in Seoul). She constantly scanned the sea of well-dressed and happy people around her, and for the first time, she let her cold guard down. She tearfully told me, “People here remind me of nature. Just like the trees, wind, and water, people here behave so freely. They laugh whenever they want, can eat and wear whatever they want, and say whatever they want. I even heard someone joking about Obama’s ears! I would love for my former 250 employees at my clothing factory in North Korea to experience such freedom. Some of my employees had to choose which child to feed at night because of the constant scarcity of food.”

Pool and Politics. After dinner each night, some people would head into the hotel bar and hang out. Around midnight, I saw two separate games of pool going on; one among North Koreans, and another with a more diverse group of players. I suggested that they merge teams, and for the next hour or so, I saw North Korean defectors, a former Ugandan child soldier, and an American diplomat play a game of pool, laughing, drinking, and betting with one another, all the while having no idea what the other person was saying, yet having one hell of a time. While watching that boisterous game, I thought of just how arbitrary political boundaries and consequent ethnicities are. The handsome brunette U.S. diplomat happened to be born in a free country, where kids don’t see corpses of political prisoners carted around villages to scare people from defecting, which is what his pool teammates from North Korea were all too familiar with. The five foot-three 29 year-old North Korean who shared pool tips with his new Ugandan friend shared photos of their wife and girlfriend, and without sharing a single word in common, they were able to connect over unconditionally loving another human being.