I was hired to work as an interpreter to the North Korean delegation at the Oslo Freedom Forum for the second time (the first time being 2016). This year also marked the 10th anniversary of the Oslo Freedom Forum.
In a nutshell, OFF is a a forum and a community of people dedicated to protecting and improving fundamental human rights around the world. It’s fun: There’s always an art performance, and since a few years an ethical fashion show (whose models are human rights activists and speakers from past years), booths by tech companies who offer services which can be used to protect civil rights activists in repressive regimes, and lots of opportunities for people to connect.
Human rights activists have a platform to voice their hopes, obstacles, and plans. Philanthropists come to learn more about projects activists are currently running, to ask in-depth questions about what they need, what they plan to do, and what their current challenges are. Entrepreneurs can pitch their technologies to activists and the general public.
This year, I was unfortunately unable to attend all but two speeches: the phenomenal speech by Fatemah Qaderyan of the Afghan Dreamers and the talk by Megha Rajagopalan of Buzzfeed China on the Chinese police state. I’m waiting for all the individual talks to be uploaded on the OFF YouTube channel, but in the meanwhile the livestream of the event is available in its entirety (Day 1 and Day 2).
I’m also amazed by how a team of about twenty can run a meeting involving nearly a thousand people so smoothly. I also appreciate how the team remains efficient and low-key: staff members are approachable, friendly, and professional at all times. On the last night people let a their hair down a little, and even the most serious senior staffer starts to smile more now that the most important parts are over. And they know how to party.
They also cut down on all unnecessary costs: staff members fly with cheaper airlines (with many leaving at odd times of the day…such as 5am), stay at cheaper hotels, and don’t splurge – like we see many “non-profits” and NGOs do these days. This is consistent with what I’ve witnessed at other interpreting trips with HRF: I’ve seen them get up and leave a restaurant because the prices were too high (this is why restaurants should have a menu outside their door). They never stay longer than necessary for work, and work hard while they’re on location.
The North Korean team had three very different former speakers: Mr. Ji Seong-ho (President at NAUH), Mr. Kang Chol-hwan (author of Aquariums of Pyongyang) and Mrs. Yeonmi Park (known for her advocacy in the United States and author of In Order to Live). They’re from three different age groups and backgrounds, and have very different experiences escaping from the North and settling in the South.
All three of them have experienced carrying out activism for North Korean human rights in both South Korea and in the United States (and beyond). Two of them have written books that have become bestsellers. One of them was invited to the State of the Union address earlier this year.
I’m always happy to work at OFF, not just because of the amazing weather and Norwegian seafood (which I must admit played a big part – I was also reunited with my childhood fave bread topping, brunost), but because I learn so much on the job, and I’m treated with respect for my work (not all employers see interpreters as professionals, but “people who speak a coupla languages”).
As a South Korean, I’m ignorant about many things North Korean refugees experience. Hearing about the experiences of refugees turned human rights activists is a privilege, since it’s one thing to read about someone’s story through the lens of the media, and quite another to hear it from their heart.
Watch speeches by North Korean human rights activists here: My Impossible Escape from North Korea Ji Seong-ho, Oslo Freedom Forum. 2015. A North Korean Rescue Story Lee Hyeonseo, Oslo Freedom Forum. 2014. North Korea's Black Market Generation Park Yeonmi, Oslo Freedom Forum. 2014. Ten Years in North Korea's Gulags Kang Chol-hwan, Oslo Freedom Forum. 2010.