In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage month, an international NGO that dedicates itself to rescuing and resettling North Korean refugees is celebrating North Korean ancestry through a video piece that connects family history, personal connection and identity.
When it comes to celebrating AAPI heritage, North Korea is not the first country that comes to mind, Liberty in North Korea states. However, the organization shares that for the “Korean diaspora with roots in North Korea, learning about the past can bring a particular mix of pride and melancholy.”
The video, titled “North Korean Ancestry,” highlights not only the North Korean defectors and their fight for freedom, but also the challenges that many North Koreans face today. The first person highlighted in “North Korean Ancestry” is Sylvia Kim, an international human rights lawyer from Toronto. Her passion for human rights emerged after discovering her ancestry in North Korea.
Paul Y. Song, a CEO and radiation oncologist from Santa Monica, California, is also featured in the video. His North Korean roots stem from his father, who was born in Pyongyang, and his mother, who is from Sariwon. Danny Seo, a co-CEO in West Los Angeles, traces his ancestry back to northwest Pyongyang.
Despite having distinctive stories, Kim, Song and Seo shared an initial feeling of shock when first discovering their roots in North Korea. The three speakers emphasize the lack of information provided by their immigrant parents about their personal ancestry, leaving a “gaping hole” in their identities. As Kim explains, “they didn’t even want to think about where they came from because it was so painful, and they were just so focused on the future.”
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Although they had not been introduced to their North Korean backgrounds in their youth due to the pressures of assimilation, they all express a sense of pride in discovering fragments of their family histories. Kim expresses that the “stories of what North Korean people had to do to survive, escape, and then come out to tell their stories is just the most powerful demonstration of human resiliency,” which also aligns with Seo’s emphasis on values. Although he wishes his parents would tell him more stories about his ancestry, the values that stem from his heritage are what have been passed down to him. “Those stories are embedded in the values,” Seo explains.
Song shares that it is important “not to abandon our past, but if anything, breed that back into our families and into our lives so that our kids feel proud about where they came from … Those of us that do have ties to North Korea should really try to reconnect and keep that going.”
Because they are not often included as a part of the AAPI community and heritage, Seo says people are missing out on North Korean culture and history.
“The beauty and the will and the culture of the North Korean people [should be] released and nurtured,” Seo states.
The conversations highlighted in the video connect back to what people can do to aid North Korean refugees and those who are making the efforts for a changing North Korea, Kim states.
“Stories of North Korean people … they humanize the issue [of human rights],” she says. “I feel like it’s our duty to support [North Korean refugees] and to help them reach their potential.”
As of this writing, Liberty in North Korea reports having participated in rescuing 1,310 refugees, of whom over 480 have been reunited with their families.