Hyeon Kim

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Young Defender Hyeon Kim leads the University Students’ Association for Unification (USAU), the largest Korean human rights organization for college students, boasting over 330 college students from the North and South Koreas. His introduction to the topic began when his grandfather, a North Korean defector, left the country at the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. It was when he came to college that he learned that the story of his grandfather did not exist simply as a story of an older generation, but of one that continues to this day.

Meeting friends at school who also defected from North Korea, he was able to learn about their personal experiences in the country and their transition into South Korea. Learning about the abhorrent human rights conditions for his northern neighbors that have existed for nearly 80 years, he thought the cultural differences would be vast. Yet, despite the divide splitting the two countries back in 1945, he began to realize the barriers he thought would divide him and his North Korean friends in fact didn’t exist. It was in the realization that he found his passion for breaking down barriers between North Koreans and South Koreans and ensuring the sharing of stories and dialogues of defectors.

“When North Koreans arrive here, they often face great levels of prejudice. “Approximately 80% of students have some form of bias against North Koreans,” Hyeon said. “Our mission at USAU is to ensure that South Koreans welcome defectors with a warm embrace and offer them the freedom they didn’t have before.”

The organization works on campus to increase dialogue between defectors and South Koreans to spread their stories and reduce the prejudice at home. They also play a critical role in promoting the integration of defectors in their campus community. Additionally, this past year, Hyeon has further expanded partnerships with foreign embassies in South Korea, such as the United States and Canadian Embassies, to help spread the organization’s vision of peace on the Korean Peninsula and imagine a future towards reunification of the two countries.

“North Koreans here on campus are not only defectors, but also victims,” he said. “We have a duty to ensure they can call South Korea home.”

Hyeon recognizes persistent violations are unlikely to change in North Korea, with the country remaining one of the worst places on the globe for human rights. He knows that he and his peers have a responsibility to combat the forced labor, lack of free speech, and torture that are commonplace in the country. Part of USAU’s activism to help improve Human Rights of North Koreans in North Korea is to educate and encourage his peers to work at nongovernmental organizations or agencies post-graduation where they can dedicate their careers to reunification and improvement of North Korean human rights.

Hyeon understands that the progress to reunification is incremental and that even 70 years since the Korean war, little exchange has happened. However, he believes that any future towards peace must come through the continuation of international cooperation.