As part of their tour of East Coast universities, a group of North Korean college students performed a theatrical representation of life in North Korea to Georgetown students in McShain Large Lounge on August 26. Now Action and Unity for Human Rights (NAUH), an organization dedicated to preparing for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula, reached out to former-interns Kayla Yoon and Sarah Mack, co-presidents of Truth and Human Rights in North Korea (THiNK) at Georgetown, to host the event.
“NAUH contacted me around mid-August and said that their… team [had]received funding to do about a week-long tour of the U.S. and said that they would be in D.C. for two days,” explained Yoon.
Founded in 2010 by Ji Seong-ho, NAUH has launched the Market Generation Tours (MGT) to show audiences firsthand the struggles of life in North Korea. These private markets proliferated in 1990 after a famine destroyed the North’s centralized food distribution system, forcing citizens to trade outside the direct jurisdiction of the state. However, according to some reports, Pyongyang has co-opted the marketplaces to monitor the flow of international trade. Though some academics view this economic independence as a hopeful sign of change within the North Korean state, NAUH’s performance clearly illustrates that the individuals making a living in the MGTs are still at the mercy of the authorities.
The actors, North Korean college students living in the South, portrayed the precariousness of life through their performances: Jeongmin, Taejoon, and Okgyeong sell their goods, endure the brutality of security officers, and see their futures crumble at the hands of sickness, circumstance, and greed. Yet, the play also highlights the intensity and strength of the personal bonds between characters, challenging the militarized, aggressive stereotype of the North Korean people that often appears in Western media.
Perhaps what makes the performance so powerful is that it is based on the lived experiences of one of the actors. He once crossed the Tumen River, the boundary between Korea and China, to sell food on behalf of his family, but instead was punished by a government official. “I have seen clips of their performance before and how well rehearsed they [are]and was attracted to the idea of a performance. I thought it may attract a more diverse audience than a speech,” said Yoon.
When NAUH began, it had no financial or governmental support. One actor said that the organization survived those first few years because the members believed they could make a difference. Performing on stages at Georgetown, New York University, Harvard, and other universities, NAUH’s energy has only augmented. The actors urged audience members to write letters to their representatives, learn more about North Korea, and share information about the MGTs on social media. “If [the government]sees this, they will be furious,” said one actor.
In the spirit of full disclosure, The Caravel’s Anchor Editor Julia Rhodes, co-writer of this article, is a member of THiNK. To learn more about THiNK and its events, see its Facebook page here.