North Korean Escapee, Entrepreneur, and Human Rights Activist Visits HRNK

By Greg Scarlatoiu, HRNK Executive Director

Ms. Ma Young-ae (second from the left) with HRNK Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu (center) and HRNK research interns Hayoung Paik (left), Jeune Kim (second from the right), and Hayley Noah (right). 

On Friday, June 12, 2020, HRNK Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu and four members of HRNK’s intern team met with Ms. Ma Young-ae, North Korean escapee, entrepreneur, and human rights activist. Ms. Ma, a former North Korean intelligence agent, escaped in 2000. Her former husband, a North Korean officer, was imprisoned and executed following her escape. After resettling in the United States, Ms. Ma became known as an active promoter of North Korean human rights in Northern Virginia and in New York City. In 2010, while protesting the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan by a North Korean torpedo on March 26, 2010, an attack that resulted in the deaths of 46 ROK sailors and one ROK Navy rescue diver, Ms. Ma protested the North Korean aggression in front of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Permanent Mission to the UN. At the time, she received threats from two agents of the Kim regime.

Ms. Ma Young-ae holds the sign she used for a peaceful protest against the Moon Jae-in government’s crackdown on human rights groups and activists. 

The reason why Ms. Ma visited Washington, D.C. was to voice a peaceful protest against the Moon Jae-in government’s crackdown on human rights groups and activists sending information via leaflet balloons and other vehicles into North Korea. Just like other North Korean escapees, Ms. Ma believes that information is critical to bringing positive change to the people of North Korea. By conniving with the Kim regime to prevent the people of North Korea from accessing information about South Korea and the outside world, the Moon government is not aiding reconciliation or rapprochement between Koreans living on both sides of the DMZ. Instead, the South Korean government is bending over backwards to appease the Kim Jong-un regime. The catastrophic results of taking the knee are obvious: Just a few days ago, the North Korean regime blew up the recently established liaison office in Kaesong. In a recent interview with HRNK, Justice Michael Kirby, former chairman of the UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea, described the explosion and destruction of the liaison building in Kaesong as “wanton, useless, and tantrum-driven.”

Interviewer: Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director, HRNK

Interview conducted in Korean, translated into English by Jeune Kim, HRNK Research Intern

Interviewee: Ms. Ma Young-ae

Ms. Ma Young-ae:

I came to DC today to make known the very real danger Mr. Park Sang-hak, the leader of the North Korean leaflet balloon launches, faces in South Korea right now. Recently, Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister, came out publicly and made harsh comments, calling North Korean escapees “trash” and using other derogatory language. Of course, in the past, Kim Jong-un did use the term “talbukja” (“North Korean escapee”). The Rodong Sinmun, the North Korean regime’s propaganda newspaper, has also referred to me (Ms. Ma) as “trash.” Even though I am a U.S.-based human rights activist now, I could not simply remain a bystander. I came today to Washington to deliver a message to President Trump, hopefully with the support of the Executive Director of HRNK. 

For years, Mr. Park has not been firing bombs or weapons at North Korea. Through these balloon launches, he has been conveying the truth and the reality of North Korea and God’s word (through Bibles) to his fellow countrymen who are dying in North Korea under the yoke of the Kim regime.

We are not “trash;” we are not subhuman; how could this regime call us trash? We just left North Korea in search of freedom. Tragically, Mr. Park’s uncles and relatives have been murdered by the North Korean regime, just because they are related to this human rights defender. Mr. Park has truly put his life and physical safety on the line for his human rights activism. As a North Korean escapee and currently a citizen of South Korea, he let his compatriots in North Korea know about freedom of expression, freedom of religion as well as the development and modernization of South Korea, which is now one of the world’s top economies. He lets them know all of that through these balloon launches.

So, I want to ask, why act so sensitively in response to Kim Yo-jong’s one comment? Reunification has not happened yet. The 38th parallel still stands. North and South are still divided. So, why is South Korea reacting so swiftly, unilaterally, and unconditionally to North Korea’s demands? I’ll leave that to the citizens of South Korea to judge for themselves. Why is South Korea acting like this? 

When the South Korean Minister of Unification visited Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia, a ROK government-sponsored and directed organization, the National Unification Advisory Council (NUAC), hosted a keynote presentation he gave at Woo Lae Oak Korean restaurant in Annandale, Virginia. A Korean American senior official of NUAC in the DC Metro area yelled at us, saying that North Korean refugees, including me, are not South Korean citizens. He further called us “saekki” (bastards). To hear someone who should be leading the reunification of Korea call us bastards was like a punch in the gut. We just had to take it. After 17 years of being a human rights activist, it is very sad to see that reunification is such a far-fetched dream. How can this South Korean government-funded organization of Korean Americans, presumably on a mission to prepare all Koreans for unification, trample on us, insult us, and claim that North Koreans are not South Korean citizens? Have they even read the Constitution of the Republic of Korea (South Korea)? All Koreans are Koreans whether they live in the South or in the North. Does that ROK Constitution even matter anymore? 

Because of this balloon launch controversy, North-South relations have been broken, but what can Mr. Park do about it? We are talking about harmless balloons, not nuclear weapons. So why is South Korea throwing such a tantrum? His life is in danger. We have come to Washington, D.C. to deliver to President Trump this message: 

“President Trump, please protect and save Mr. Park Sang-hak.”

Speaking of President Trump, when I think of him, I remember that he invited me to Manhattan, and I got to meet him. Because I cannot speak English very well, I wrote him a letter. Trump is a Christian. He has shown his concern for Korean reunification and North Korean refugees around the world. We asked him for two things: 1) Please support the cause of human rights in North Korea; and 2) please solve the problem of North Korea’s nuclear program. For the sake of South Korea and the entire world, completely remove all nuclear sites including those that are underground. We are very thankful for his support.

I left New Jersey this morning at 6:30 a.m. to come to Washington, D.C. During this interview at HRNK’s office, I realized there is something I want to add to my message to President Trump. What I want to ask is to please protect the human rights of North Korean escapees in South Korea and the world. Their current situation is pitiful. Please protect Mr. Park Sang-hak. He is under threat by both North and South Korea. 

Image of Park Sang-hak courtesy of Radio Free Asia.