April 24, 2013

Journalisten: North Korean Voices

This article was originally published by Kathrine Geard at Journalisten on April 12, 2013.

Initiating a media platform for the exile community, and calling for Norwegian journalists with experience and interest in the regime.

North Korea's war rhetoric has placed the country on the global news map. Betsy Kawamura hopes this can lead to more attention surrounding North Korean refugees as well. She has been engaged in the refugees’ situation for more than ten years. A long-term goal involves building a media and journalism program to strengthen the exile community’s voice in Europe.

This Japanese–American human rights activist has periodically lived in Norway since 1986. She is currently planning a fall/winter seminar at the ”Literature House” in Oslo in order to illuminate the contributing role of the media to changes affecting North Korea and the global exile community.

“We also want to find out if the engagement from international journalists has resulted in improvements when it comes to human rights, the media situation, and international connections,” explains Kawamura.

Need for more awareness 

The seminar has received support from “Fritt Ord” (in English “Free Speech”, a Norwegian foundation, established to secure the freedom of speech and publication). Journalists and photographers who have worked inside North Korea, or documented the lives of defectors, will participate in the seminar.

Some of the preliminary names on the list include the German photojournalist Katharine Hesse, who has worked with North Korean refugees in China, and filmmaker Paul Harraby, who made the documentary “Under a Different Sky” for Panos Pictures. The documentary is about a North Korean refugee woman living in Britain. Thomas Van Houtryve, who last year released the award-winning book “Behind the Curtains of 21st Century Communism” (agency VII), and Norway-based Morten Hvaal, who has had opportunities to document natural disasters inside the country, are also hoped to participate in the seminar.

“Other journalists or photographers who have experience with North Korea or the diaspora who wish to contribute are welcome to contact me,” says Kawamura. She wishes to raise awareness about the situation in North Korea, and inspire media and journalists in Norway and Scandinavia to look into the situation of North Koreans in exile.

Giving a voice 

Kawamura arranged a similar seminar at the “Literature House” last fall with support from Norwegian Pen and publishing house Cappelen Damm. Among the participants were two survivors from a North Korean prison camp, including Mr. Shin Dong-hyuk.

This seminar is just one part of the work Kawamura is doing in order to increase attention toward North Korea, and to help and support refugees who live in Europe. She is also working on a long-term program called “Voice of Free North Korea,” which will provide a voice to some 1,000 North Koreans who live in European exile.  The main platform will be a website format, but creating a radio format is on the wish list. The goal is to give the North Korean refugees a safe platform where they can share their stories and experiences and gain new skills through training in online communication and narratives.

“We will emphasize the importance of having women on board, as they have a tendency to remain invisible. We have a gender equality perspective on our work,” says Kawamura.


Kawamura believes that a mentoring program, where experienced journalists are responsible for the training, can catalyze future careers in professional media for refugees.

“It is important that we have experienced journalists with professional ethics to work with the North Korean diaspora. Part of my ambition is to lead them toward world-class journalism,” says Kawamura.

She feels it is especially important that Norway contributes to this work, and points out the country's reputation as a promoter for human rights, gender equality and support to dissident voices such as “Democratic Voice of Burma”, “The Norwegian Tibet Committee”, and “The Helsingfors Committee” and “The Human Rights House”.