To Three Ladies Who Prevailed

HRNK Publishes First Poem Dedicated to North Korean Escapees

To Three Ladies Who Prevailed

By Nimal Gunatilleke

The darkness that you saw,
The humiliation of the meek,
The breaking of the strong,
Risen cruelty crushing the weak,
Crushing the spirit of humanity,
Now, the light shed by your smile
Conquers it.

A smile conveys 
As much as the books 
Full of the fury and the pomp
Of history and time, 
But nothing compares with the look
Of quiet determination 
Transmitted in a smile.

We are the lucky few who tread 
Lightly on the ground,
Not held down and filled with dread
But floating and unbound,
Able to untie the knots that hold
The innocent and humble,
Because, we refuse to do as told
And deep inside, we fly, we fly. 

And I wait, without
Expectation, for the morning light
To show the promise of distant hills.
I lift my aching back from the toil,
Shivering and shaken with chills
Raking the frozen ground with my clawed hands.



Dinner at Neung-ra-bap-sang (능라밥상). From left to right: Sathy Gunawardhana, Nimal Gunatilleke (the author), Greg Scarlatoiu (HRNK executive director), Dr. Lee Ae-ran, Raymond Ha (Stanford University PhD candidate, HRNK editorial consultant), Amy Lau (former HRNK intern), and Amanda Mortwedt Oh (HRNK human rights attorney)


While spending another torrid summer in Seoul, I was delighted to host my dear friends Nimal Gunatilleke and Sathy Gunawardhana at my modest dwelling by the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS) campus, for about a week. Nimal, Sathy and I used to work together in international development consulting, prior to my work with Korea Economic Institute (KEI) and HRNK in Washington, D.C.

During their stay in Seoul, my good old friends attended guest lectures given to my students by extraordinary women escapees: Dr. Hyun In-ae, former HRNK resident fellow, and Ms. Kim Young-soon, Political Prison Camp No. 15 (Yodok) survivor. They also met and spoke with Dr. Lee Ae-ran, recipient of the International Women of Courage Award, as we dined on exquisite North Korean food at the restaurant she runs in Chongno, in association with her North Korean Traditional Food Institute.

Humbled, inspired and awed by their life stories and resilience, Nimal dedicated a poem to these three terrific ladies. As far as I know, this is the first poem ever dedicated to North Korean escapees. We have surely seen translations of poems authored by escapees, but not poems dedicated to them by others. In the world of North Korean human rights organizations, we count so many escapees among our dearest friends and colleagues. We rely on their testimony and stories to tell the truth about North Korea’s human rights conundrum. But none of us have ever thought of dedicating them a poem. Or perhaps we just lacked the talent to do so. It took a visit by an American poet to see the first ode ever dedicated to three courageous ladies who made unthinkable sacrifices to escape North Korea’s oppression.

Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director
Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)
August 22, 2018


Dr. Nimal Gunatilleke is the author of Ann: Just Because, a volume of poetry dedicated to the memory of his late wife. He is currently working on an anthology of poems titled The Light and The Dark. The anthology includes reflections of love and affection, joy and gladness, the catastrophes that visit people, children and the horrors of manmade disasters. An international development professional with decades of worldwide experience, Dr. Gunatilleke holds his Ph.D. and M.A. in Economics from Michigan State University and his B.S. in Mathematics and Physics from University of Ceylon. He currently resides in Lansing, Michigan.

Dr. Hyun In-ae is a non-resident fellow at the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) in Washington, DC. She fled North Korea with her children in 2004 after her husband was arrested as a political dissident. In North Korea, Dr. Hyun taught Juche philosophy at Najin Maritime University in North Hamgyong Province from 1979 to 1988 and at Chongjin Medical College from 1988 to 2001. She was a visiting research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) in South Korea. Dr. Hyun is now in her late 50s and a member of the Republic of Korea National Unification Advisory Council (NUAC). She received her PhD from Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, South Korea, where she currently teaches. Dr. Hyun was one of eight North Korean escapees to meet with President Donald Trump in February 2018. 

Kim Young-soon is the author of “I Was Sung Hae Rim’s Friend,” and a survivor of the infamous North Korean Yodok Political Prison Camp No. 15. Kim, along with her family members, was imprisoned for nine years after the authorities realized she knew of her friend’s affair with Kim Jong-il. Before her imprisonment, she was a celebrated young dancer who lived among the North Korean elite. Kim escaped North Korea in 2001 and entered South Korea in 2003. Kim is now in her early 80s. She was one of eight North Korean escapees to meet with President Donald Trump in February 2018.

Dr. Lee Ae-ran and her family were designated "bad elements" by the North Korean government and sent to a labor camp following her Christian grandparents' defection to South Korea. Dr. Lee spent eight years in detention, enduring abuse, horrific living conditions, and starvation as punishment for her grandparents' alleged "crime." Upon her release, she graduated from college and worked at a government science and technology committee. In 1997, after a family relative in the United States published a memoir implicating her father in anti-regime activities, Dr. Lee fled to South Korea rather than be imprisoned again. She was able to take her 4-month old infant son with her, but was forced to leave her husband and other family members behind.

Dr. Lee is the first female escapee to earn a doctoral degree. To help others in the escapee community reach the levels of achievement she has earned, she has spearheaded a variety of initiatives. In 2005, she founded the Global Leadership Scholarship Program, which has provided more than a thousand North Korean students with scholarships to study English—a skill critical to success in South Korean colleges and universities. In January 2009, she founded the Hana Defector Women's Organization, an NGO with more than 200 members that provides North Korean women in the Republic of Korea with job training, child care, educational support, and human rights training. In 2010, Dr. Lee also opened the first North Korea Traditional Culinary and Culture Institute to provide North Korean women with practical entrepreneurial and culinary arts skills. She currently runs a restaurant in Seoul called Neung-ra-bap-sang (능라밥상). Dr. Lee Ae-ran is a recipient of the International Women of Courage Award.

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