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Defectors tell all on special YouTube program

Feb 23,2018
Some 170 defectors from North Korea, including Song Mi-na, third from left, have shared their life stories on “Tal-Tal-Tal,” a show run by the YouTube channel BeNa TV. The videos garner tens of thousands of views from all parts of the globe - including North Korea. [PARK SANG-MOON]
Jang Won-jae established BeNaMu in 2014 with the goal of bridging cultural gaps between North and South Korea, which he calls preparations for reunification. [PARK SANG-MOON]
Song Mi-na pulls a guitar to her chest, blinks back tears and prepares to sing.

“It’s a North Korean song depicting the longing to reunite with one’s mother,” explains Song, 26, a North Korean defector who lives with her mother and younger brother in Uijeongbu, 12 miles north of the South Korean capital. “Now that I’m here with my mother, I’ve changed the lyrics to express my longing for my older brother.”

Song’s brother stayed behind when she defected in April 2013. He was supposed to defect three months later by swimming across the Amnok (Yalu) River near their house in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, on the northern tip of North Korea right beneath the border from China. The river could swell dangerously, but Song’s brother said he was a good swimmer and would make it.

She hasn’t heard from him since.

She starts to sing.

“Even in my dreams, I miss you, brother.

I want to run to you, brother.”

Her performance is recorded on a digital camera to be uploaded to BeNa TV, a YouTube channel with more than 77,000 subscribers around the world.

Against all odds, Song hopes her brother is alive - and may see the video.

BeNa TV is the brainchild of Jang Won-jae, 51, a South Korean with a Ph.D. in comparative theatre history from the University of London. Jang has many passions, including for football - he’s written seven books on the subject and served as a member of the Korea Football Association’s planning committee - and is a champion of diversity in Korea. He was secretary general of the now-defunct Gyeonggi English Village, which offered visitors English-language experiences.

In 2014, Jang started BeNaMu, a non-profit organization for multi-ethnic families in Korea. Based in Seoul’s cultural hub of Hyehwa-dong, central Seoul, BeNa TV is a YouTube channel (with the username “bnatv1004”) that introduces immigrants to Korea to local viewers in a talk show format. The most popular program on the channel is “Tal-Tal-Tal,” in which a defector from North Korea gets a full two hours to tell his or her story. The hosts are defectors themselves. The first hour is about the defector’s life up to the point or arrival at South Korea’s Incheon International Airport. In the second hour, the defector describes adjusting to life in the South - and his or her dreams for the future.

Some 170 defectors have appeared on “Tal-Tal-Tal” since August 2016, their videos garnering tens of thousands of views from all parts of the globe - including North Korea, according to official statistics provided by YouTube. Jang believes those number are probably understated and that the Pyongyang regime may be viewing his channel via proxy computer servers, which would register as viewers in other parts of the world such as Africa.

Early last year, Jang’s office got a call from South Korea’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, saying they traced IP addresses used by the North leading to BeNaMu’s network - possibly trying to hack it. “Make sure you don’t have any crucial documents you don’t want them to get,” the agency warned.

North Korea calls defectors “human scum” and often puts the families they leave behind in prisons, where they face torture, starvation, rape, and sometimes summary executions. The fear that their relatives could suffer forces many defectors to keep their lives low-key.

As part of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Pyongyang, the Donald Trump administration has been trying to highlight the regime’s brutality and human abuses through defectors’ stories.

On Jan. 30, a defector was singled out by Trump during his first State of the Union address as a living example of North Korea’s atrocities. Trump later invited a group of defectors to the White House, criticizing past administrations for failing to act more forcefully against the North’s human rights violations.

When U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited South Korea earlier this month to participate in the Olympics opening ceremony, he toured a memorial hall dedicated to the South Korean Navy vessel Cheonan, which was sunk in a North Korean torpedo attack in 2010, killing 46. Pence subsequently met with defectors at the memorial hall, where he was accompanied by Fred Warmbier, father of the late Otto Warmbier, an American student who was jailed in the North before being released in a vegetative state, only to die six days later last June.

Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who serves as a presidential adviser, is expected to meet with young female North Korean defectors when she lands in South Korea today for the Olympics closing ceremony on Sunday.

Although many defectors in South Korea shy away from the media, Jang has no trouble getting guests for “Tal-Tal-Tal.”

“The show has grown quite popular in the defectors’ community here,” he says, “so they sometimes contact one of our hosts or reach out to us through Facebook and other vehicles, saying they want to appear on the program.

“They’re like, ‘I’ve watched your show. I want to tell my story, too. I think the experience will untangle the web of bitterness in me.’”

Jang’s interest in the pariah state goes back several decades, peaking in the 1990s when he read disturbing articles about the so-called Arduous March, a nationwide famine that was accompanied by a crippling economic crisis, costing two to three millions of lives.

“As a father of three,” says Jang, “it was heartbreaking.”

It wasn’t until 2014 when Jang channeled that compassion into a nongovernmental organization. An acquaintance urged him to create a YouTube channel through which North Korean defectors could candidly tell their stories.

“The country already had several television shows featuring North Korean defectors, but a lot of their comments were edited and cast members couldn’t talk long because everybody had to take turns,” Jang says. “I wanted to produce a program that gives full attention to one defector at a time.”

Jang currently has four full-time employees at BeNaMu. The team gets revenue from donations - some 300 to 500 people per month offering 1,000 to 1 million won (about $1 to $930) - and YouTube ads. Some foreigners reach out as well after watching “Tal-Tal-Tal” videos with English subtitles. Five to six viewers have randomly volunteered to offer translations for free.

The proudest moment for Jang was when a North Korean defector contacted him last December, saying she had watched “Tal-Tal-Tal,” and asked whether his crew could help her find her defector uncle, with whom she lost contact seven years back. Jang and his coworkers used their defectors’ network here and managed to track down the uncle. The uncle expressed relief, Jang says, and had also searched for her and missed her.

Aside from “Tal-Tal-Tal,” BeNa TV runs programs introducing immigrants from outside Korea, who share their life stories and tips to fellow immigrants on how to blend into homogenous Korea.

For Jang, it’s all part of a process to help South Koreans embrace the newcomers and lay the groundwork for a unified nation.

“North Korean defectors have a different sense of life ethics from South Koreans, which is why chaos would be inevitable if the two countries reunite,” Jang warns. “They’re people who have gone through very extreme situations, so their thoughts on abiding by the law or using physical violence are very different from ours.”

Jang hopes BeNa TV will bridge that gap.

As for Song, the North Korean defector who hopes her brother didn’t perish in his attempt to defect, she’s writing a cookbook on North Korean comfort food, co-authored by a local chef whose only connection to North Korea is that his father-in-law lived there before the 1950-53 Korean War broke out. The book is set to be released next month.

Appearing on “Tal-Tal-Tal,” she says, was like magic.

“It’s so amazing,” Song says with a smile. “I cried and laughed. I feel like I was in my old home in North Korea confiding in my grandmother.”

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]