SEOUL, South Korea – For Professor Clifton Emery, a lecturer at Seoul’s majestic Yonsei University, it all comes down to the Holocaust.
Emery, who grew up outside of Philadelphia and first fell in love with South Korea during a year abroad teaching English, has been studying social welfare, domestic violence and child maltreatment for more than 20 years. And Yonsei, a startling pocket of NeoGothic architecture and climbing ivy in the midst of uber-modern Seoul, has of late become his base for another kind of research: exploring the qualitative risks and statistical trends facing defectors from the North Korean regime.
Emery, who lives in Seoul, has a Chinese-American wife and two young children. His academic work focuses on the power that social groups and communities wield over the specter of child abuse, and as part of a wider study he is currently interviewing 200 North Korean defectors to examine the risks they face in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder and family violence.
This work has put him in contact with smugglers moving Koreans from the peninsula’s north to south along a massive, multi-nation underground railroad. It has also brought him close to the aid workers – a handful of Israelis among them – who help the process along.
“When I think about the work that they’re doing and the work that we do together, it always comes back, for me, to the Holocaust,” says Emery. A Christian who grew up in a predominantly Jewish suburb, Emery says that he has always had close Jewish friends and colleagues, and in his 20s his academic curiosity led him to visit Auschwitz, Terezin, and the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. Such a fascination has fostered in him a healthy sense of righteous indignation toward the current human rights catastrophe unfolding just across the border, and a desire to work with those standing up against it.
One of Emery’s closest Jewish friends these days is Yotam Polizer, the Israeli serving as Asia Director for the NGO IsraAid, which in addition to missions in Japan and the Philippines is offering trauma care training and workshops from Seoul. Yonsei – in a large part thanks to Polizer’s warm relationship with Emery – has become the ad-hoc base for IsraAid’s South Korean work, and on a recent cool weeknight about two dozen aid workers and psychology students gathered together in a lecture hall to discuss the intricacies of trauma and how they can identify, salve and treat the emotional wounds of shell-shocked defectors.
Much of that work focuses on nonverbal treatment, be it through art, music, or movement, allowing survivors of the North Korean regime to express themselves without the burden of a written record.
“I’m reminded of the Prague ghetto, and reading how the people there coped with being locked in this place and with the oncoming Holocaust. It was with this incredible outpouring of creativity,” Emery says. “And this sort of creative art-centered approach, this is not something that’s esoteric or abstract. And if you’re talking about people who are scared, who are trying to keep secrets because they’re trying to protect themselves or other people, well, the thing about art is that its interpretation is always idiosyncratic.”
Today, a network of smugglers and NGOs working to bring North Koreans to safety via a shadowy route that snakes from China to Southeast Asia and finally to Seoul. Many of these refugees are women, who willingly sell themselves as brides to rural Chinese men and then wait, often bearing several children to their husbands, until the opportunity for escape presents itself.
IsraAid does not operate in the field, but has offered training to the counselors and therapists who serve as refugees’ first contacts when they make it to South Korea and to the government-run Hanowan Resettlement Center that sits in the hills south of Seoul.
There, the refugees learn the bare bones of democracy, free speech, and capitalism. They are taught that they can say whatever they wish about their government and practice any religion they choose. It’s a paradigm shift of massive proportions. Some of them have later enrolled at Yonsei, and arrived as students at IsraAid’s seminars.
Polizer visits Seoul every two to three months. Today, he is at Yonsei accompanied by Sheri Oz, a retired marriage and family therapist who lives in Haifa and made aliyah from Canada nearly 30 years ago. Oz is conducting a four-day seminar on trauma triage – identifying the signs of different types of trauma, addressing it in the short term and how to know when to hand off its treatment to professionals in the long term.
“Right now I’m creating a common language for us all to share,” Oz tells the group. “Whether we’re doing therapy or not doing therapy, it’s important for anyone who works with refugees, all of whom have had traumatic experiences, to understand the theory of trauma, war and displacement, and to know how to approach each individually at the level at which they are functional emotionally.”
Among the assembled group are two staffers from LINK: Liberty in North Korea, a US-based NGO that rescues North Korean refugees, transports them to safety and oversees their resettlement in both South Korea and the U.S.
One of the few men among the group is Jihyun Roh, a native of Daejon, South Korea, with flawless English and a master’s degree from Pennsylvania’s Lock Haven University, who works as LINK’s resettlement coordinator, overseeing refugees’ transition into democracy and freedom. He is joined by a young woman called Annie, who works as LINK’s director of field operations and for security reasons cannot reveal her real name.
“We’re not therapists, and we don’t have mental health training,” Annie says. “So it’s very helpful just to have a context for what some of our clients are experiencing, or may have experienced.”
Much of Oz’s four-day seminar focuses on gender-based violence, because so many of the refugees escaping North Korea – about 70 percent, according to some estimates – are women. And while some of them have endured specific horrors by virtue of being women, Annie says she was inspired by much of Oz’s training, which distilled PTSD to its barest origins and explained that everyone absorbs trauma differently, and there is no one who cannot heal from it.
“Just because someone experiences trauma doesn’t necessarily mean they were traumatized,” Annie says after the seminar. “[Oz] spoke a lot about human resilience, and we were able to relate to that. A lot of the people we rescue share very scary stuff with us about their previous experiences, and it affirmed a lot of what we were thinking.”
Emery is in the group, also, and so are a number of students studying social work and psychology. One of them is a baby-faced Korean undergrad who softly tells the group that she speaks fluent Arabic and has worked in the field in Syria.
Such a cross-section of humanitarians, Emery says, is typical.
“The people doing the work and defectors themselves are all over the map politically,” he says. “You have fundamentalist Christians and you have very secular professional Western organizations and you have IsraAid. What we share in common is a sense of the absolute urgency of this crisis.”
It’s really a question, Emery says, of how much we believe in the term “never again.”
“I grew up hearing stories of the Holocaust and hoping that if I had been alive at that time I would have had the moral fortitude to do something,” he says. “I simply cannot look myself in the mirror and not do something. It’s just a very simple response of the heart.”