An Interview with Mr. David Roden, Honorary Consulate of South Korea in Detroit

with the Honorary Consulate of Korea in Detroit, Mr. David Roden
Overlooking Comerica Park

Transcribed by: Kate Dolgenos

John: So you are the honorary consulate for South Korea in Detroit and I just wanted to ask, how did that happen? Like, how did you become…


Mr. Roden: There’s a story…it’s an interesting story. I’ve been involved with Korea since I initially went there as a US Peace Corps volunteer in June of 1977. And I stayed there for two years. I lived in two cities, actually three cities, because I went to Jinju first and then I went to Busan, I lived out near Haeundae, and after that I lived in Dongdaeshin-dong. So Korea was going through a tremendous transformation at that time. In 1977, there were very massive industries coming up, like the shipbuilding industry. Hyundai was making a small car called Pony at the time, with involvement from the Japanese – like Mitsubishi. So Korea was at the industrial take off stage between 1977 and 1979. Politically, it was the rule of Park Chung-hee so there was not a lot of political freedom. I would see student demonstrations from time to time and tear gas coming out, especially around colleges. Opposition parties hadn’t fully participated in the political process. It was a very interesting time to be in Korea. I continued to have an interest throughout my life in Korea. I moved to Michigan in 1990. Along the way, I would participate in Korean community events, and then I was approached by a fellow by the name of Tack-Yong Kim, and he’s a newspaper man and he has a magazine called the Michigan Korean Weekly.


John: I know him! He’s actually written about us before.


Mr. Roden: That’s good, he should. He initially approached me – because they had a prior honorary consul who had the position for 15 years but I think he was an attorney and he did some immigration work but by the time I took on the role it wasn’t so much inbound immigration. There were a lot of Koreans who immigrated to the US in the 60s to avoid political repression under the Park Chung-Hee regime. They were a different mindset, a different generation. They came in – they needed more immigration attorney work. And my role was different, but at the same time as an honorary consul the first and foremost responsibility is the protection of Korean nationals if an incident or circumstances come up. I’m not gonna talk about that but there have been situations, involving human trafficking for example. Most of the time, I spend time officiating at or promoting events of Korean culture. I don’t do much on the business side because the Korean companies have become far more sophisticated and they have other organizations that can help with the business side, but I maintain interest in it. In the consular role I try to educate the American community about Korean culture through involvement with the Freer House and promoting knowledge about Korean ceramics, and now I’ve moved on to the Friends of Asian art at the DIA (Detroit Institute of Art). They have a new Asian wing and they’ve acquired some beautiful Korean pieces. So I’m trying to support and broaden the knowledge of Korea – not only for the Korean community, but the community at large, and not only older, but also modern Korean artists. The consular work does not really involve anything to do with what interests me about North Korea, because North Korea  is the last vestige of society where people are still imprisoned in a cold war mentality and they look around the world and even Cuba is opening up with relations with the US. Of course there’s terrible turmoil in Syria and many other places but despite all of those things North Korea continues to exist in this vacuum. And that’s a real problem and if they continue…


John: It’s like they’re in a time bubble. And in terms of reunification that time difference is going to be very hard to negotiate culturally.


Mr. Roden: My experience suggests that when things fall apart, they fall apart quickly. It’s not a gradual descent. If you look at the economic crisis in Korea in 1997, when the IMF had to intervene, one day everything was good and the next day it all went to hell in a handbasket. The same thing happened in 2008 in the US. One company failed and the entire system was brought to its knees. And you look at these other regimes that have collapsed -they’re always ugly when they collapse. So when I look at North Korea, the thing that worries me the most is that when it starts to implode, there may be an attempt to cover up the existence of the prison camps. And they may kill all those people and pretend it never did exist. My biggest fear is that in the end, it could be that. I don’t know what we can do except educate people about the existence of these camps. There’s been progress made at the UN in terms of acknowledging the existence of these camps, but the regime has gone to its third generation now and it’s really a bizarre place. I don’t know how to chip away at that. I know it’s not easy. I say it’s not easy because what are the vested interests here? If you look at the neighborhood, Russia has its own game. Russia and Japan fought over Korea in 1904. Russia wanted a railroad and a port. Japan looked at Russia as a threat and Korea became stuck. Strategically, the Russians have a card in the game. Japan has a nasty history with Korea, but the issue today is that the Japanese don’t want to see a unified Korea because it would provide a competitor in the region. Japan’s population is aging out and North Korea would have a more youthful population, and minerals and coal and other things. A unified Korea would be an economic competitor in the region to Japan. Japan’s interest is self-preservation. At the end of they day, they’re not an advocate for unification in anyway. China doesn’t want a US ally on the border. The US could offer to remove its troops to make China feel like there aren’t troops on their border. We tried that in 1953 and they didn’t like it; they won’t like it now. China doesn’t want to see a unified Korea without extracting a cost and they don’t want refugees across the border. They give just enough to the Kim regime so it can continue its existence. The North Korean elite doesn’t want unification unless they’re gonna come out with something. They’re afraid they’ll be killed or executed. South Korea doesn’t know if they can afford it. As aging goes on, the South Korean population is less and less interested in unification. They see it’s expensive and they don’t have the blood ties and the societies are moving apart. What is the US’s role in the region? To provide security. That’s an open question today. The US has historically kept the peace since 1945. China is a rising power. The question is, how much commitment would the US have to the region in the event of a Chinese attack on Japan or a Chinese incursion of some kind that caused North Korea to do something? I’m not sure – I’m not privy to that information, but my suspicions are that the US will have an increasing budget deficit and interest rates will rise and there will be less money to maintain buses in Japan and Korea and elsewhere, and more importantly a large naval presence that will be a counterbalance to the Chinese. I see a window where if we can move towards unification now, we’re better off. If we wait too long, that issue will be harder to deal with if the US loses more power in the region. If you believe even 50% of what you hear from the books about North Korean prisons, it is beyond description, the level of barbarity. The Japanese were extremely brutal with the Koreans. There’s been so many disgusting stories of what happened to the Korean women who were under the control of the Japanese. This is all documented and it’s terrible. On the other hand, how can the Korean people treat their own people in such a terrible manner? All of this political, ideological difference…it’s really terrible. And so, how do we help those people? What can we do ? I don’t have an answer to this question other than we have to educate using NGOs and the UN has to take more decisive action with that. But the most influential player here is China. However, North Korea has these missiles they keep building up and they have nuclear capability, so China is careful to avoid something. It’s hard to imagine how to fix the situation. So Mr. Kim has a kind of leverage because of the possession of the weapons, and if he does lash out, he’d lash to Japan, not to China or South Korea, even though there’s a US military base in South Korea. It’s a question of how, as a world that we have today and we know the depravities, how do we educate people? That’s what intrigued me about what you’ve been doing. Here you are, a young man living in the state of Michigan, and I think your project is fantastic. The more you do to promote that, the better off the people will be. We haven’t even talked about the other projects. I understand that North Korean people face discrimination in South Korea. They don’t have an easy path to matriculate into society. I even heard some stories that people get nostalgia about returning to the North, which would be ridiculous – you’d be killed unless they could turn you into a propaganda implement. That shows your mind was so conditioned, and that’s true of many communist societies. You don’t have to do anything and you get something in return. But in a capitalist society, there’s very little guaranteed provided to you. South Korea’s a very competitive society.


John: A common misconception is that North Korean people are just oppressed, but we really forget how conditioned they really are and how effective the propaganda they have is.


Mr. Roden: No question, it’s state of the art, their ability to do what they do. It’s a state of the art that they have there. If you look at history, there were Jewish concentration camp guards during the Nazis. Jews knew what their fate would be and they continued to lord it over the Jews. If you look at the story of the guard with Shin Dong-Hyuk, he got the information from Shin and he tried to pretend he uncovered it to get some benefit. We can pause at this point because I’ve meandered through and I’ve just gone off here…


John: What are the possible ways the regime could fall?


Mr. Roden: It’s a very intriguing question and to try to map out scenarios for how that could happen. I’m sure the RAND Corporation and other think tanks and in Korea they’re looking for scenarios there. I’m sure these political think tanks would be looking at.


John: Rand?


Mr. Roden: Yeah, R-A-N-D. They recently did a piece on US-China fighting and it was a provocative piece. Why would the US and China fight? It would have to be because something happened to Korea or Japan or Taiwan. We forget about Taiwan as a part of this equation. There are nightmare scenarios – they loose nukes. That could happen if China decided to make a direct move on Taiwan and the North Korean regime thought that if China was making a move, the regime would too. I don’t think they’re that crazy – it’s all about regime preservation. But the guy does execute people around him with frequency. Within the system, it might be totally normal behavior, but you have to wonder. You know what happens in the camps – killing for preservation purposes. The ideal scenario would be if over time, the people of North Korea would get a reality check and then look at rising up, potentially. Remember, they have no weapons. The Jews tried it in the Warsaw Uprising and you can control skilled soldiers with weapons, but an unarmed populace is harder. Unless people want to completely overrun the soldiers and take bullets until they run out, it’ll create a bad situation. The ideal scenario would be the establishment of relations between China, South Korea, Russia, the US and Japan – the six-party talks didn’t amount to anything – to talk about the bad guy in the neighborhood.


A unified Korea is nice. But every country has vested interests, so it’s hard to see an easy scenario. Over time, education, awareness – that would have an impact. But look at Cuba – we’re opening up relations there, but that regime is so entrenched and the mechanisms of control and how things function has to get upended. When I said things could happen the fast – who would have thought the Berlin wall would fall in quick succession in 1989? Everything got spun out. You look at other situations of regime change where they happen quickly. North Korea is an anomaly. I’m not a scholar about this and the information I have is from reading and talking to people. I have no idea what the State Dept is thinking in terms of regime change. We were trying to influence a regime change in Libya. Are they better off than they were? Probably not. Same with Egypt. I don’t know if a general emerges, cuts off Kim’s head and makes his own dynasty.


John: So it would just be a different regime..


Mr. Roden: It gets back to what’s the willingness of the parties in the neighborhood. I would be surprised if it happened independently. We have very little knowledge of what goes on and no network. In these other countries, we had networks, but it’s a different scenario. What we can do is try to help the North Koreans. One project I’m becoming involved with is the Bell Foundation – have you heard of it?


John: No


Mr. Roden: What he’s trying to do is prevent the development of tuberculosis in North Korea. If not treated, it modifies – I forget the medical term – but it changes to the point where it can contaminate other countries and be resistant to drugs. It’s a bad petri dish for tuberculosis. And the founder of the foundation goes to North Korea. The issue there is to help directly where help can be given. One thing you can do is help North Korean citizens, not the military. Originally, Eugene Bell was delivering food, which is stolen by the military. That happens all over, not just in the military. That’s typical. My next step is, I learned about the organization from a friend and I’m trying to promote that. Obviously, the work you’re doing is commendable.

John: Thank you.

Annual Scholarships for Kumkang School

All of the students of Kumkang School live and eat in the basement of the school’s building. While the younger students wake up to go to classes in the floor directly above them, the institution does not have the resources to provide education beyond the elementary level. So the older students must attend middle and high schools in the local area, but public education is not free in South Korea.

We continue the tradition of annually awarding scholarships to the students of Kumkang School so that they may continue their education and afford the textbooks and supplies they need. Below are this year’s awardees!


Korean Dinner 2016 – In Pictures


It’s that time of the year again, the Korean Dinner! Above you can see the fruits of our fourth attempt at the largest, and now traditional fundraiser of our chapter in Washtenaw International High School. Tonight was fun time for all of us, a time of sharing good Korean cuisine and live entertainment with friends and family, learning about refugees from North Korea and our work for them. For those of you who could not make it, we will be posting a highlights reel in the next two weeks of the event, so stay tuned!

Jessica Doernte, the president of the chapter with her opening speech
Jessica Doernte, the president of our chapter, giving the opening speech
A buffet of Korean foods and desserts! Donated by our generous sponsors, and served by our members
A buffet of Korean foods and desserts! Donated by our generous sponsors, and served by our members
The harmonious Washtenaw International Acapella
The harmonious Washtenaw International Acapella
North American Taekwondo Academy
North American Taekwondo Academy displaying impressive feats of martial prowess
Teacher Mr. Garcia trying his hand at the art
Teacher Mr. Garcia trying his hand at the art
Traditional Korean Fan Dance Performers
Traditional Korean Fan Dance Performers
Contextualizing Bluebird NK
Contextualizing Bluebird NK, introducing our developments and future plans






Our new name: Bluebird NK

Dear  Readers,

For the past three years, Everyone’s Free has served us very well, but we have always wanted to have a name with a bit more significance.

We found that the bluebird was a common symbol of happiness throughout different societies and times, and it was also in the Belgian play, The Blue Bird, where two children seek out the magical bluebird of happiness only to find that is was in their backyard all along. We think that the name, Bluebird NK reflects our earnest desire to help North Korean defectors find happiness in their new lives. They have risked everything to escape oppression, and they deserve more than just the bare sustenance most have.

With our new name, we will to set a higher standard for ourselves as a non-profit organization, and dedicate ourselves fully to the educational development of North Korean defectors in both the US and South Korea.


John J.S. Park

Founder and President

Our new t-shirt design

The new t-shirts, above, are arriving January 13th!

And our trusty old design


Holidays at Kumkang School

Happy Holidays!

We have heard from Kumkang School that they have three new students this year, and while we could not visit this year, we still wanted to give them a warm welcome to their new home. So for this holiday season, we got each child a winter coat and a pair of shoes:


On the far left is also Jee-Yong, who we helped defect just two years ago. He has grown so fast that he could not fit into the coat we sent him last year, and he has been doing so well in middle school that we couldn’t just leave him out.

And we couldn’t leave out the volunteer staff and teachers of Kumkang School either, who have worked tirelessly all year for the students. Hopefully with these gloves they will never come to Kumkang School with cold hands again. In return they sent us some wonderful christmas cards that you can see below:


An Interview with Author and Journalist, Blaine Harden

With Blaine Harden (on left), Author of Escape from Camp 14
With Mr. Blaine Harden (on left), Author of Escape from Camp 14

9780670016570_GreatLeaderF_JKF_STILLNEEDHIRES.indd      paperback-ESCAPE-FROM-CAMP-14_unapproved

What inspired you to start you work on matters involving N. Korea?

A: When I was covering Northeast Asia for the Washington Post between 2007-10, I was asked by my boss to focus on North Korea — and find something fresh. In the course of my work, I met and interviewed Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born in a North Korean labor camp and escaped. Later, I asked Shin to work with me on a book about his life. The book was, to my surprise, an international bestseller. Since then, I have written a second book about North Korea, The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot (2015). It focuses on the founding of the country — and the dark legacy of Great  Leader Kim Il Sung. Now, I am working on a third Korea-related book that examines American behavior in the Korean War and beyond.

What were your original intentions in writing Escape from Camp 14, as well as The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot?

A: To explain for a mass audience how North Korea treats its people and why. I have tried to find accessible, exciting stories that grab the imagination of a general reader. The idea is to tell a tale that is so interesting that a reader doesn’t realize he or she is learning history, political science, and current affairs.

How did your books effect the international movement for N. Korean human rights?

A: Escape from Camp 14 was a significant factor in pushing the U.N. to investigate North Korea for crimes against humanity. The UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in 2014 to refer the Kim government to the International Criminal Court for prosecution. That vote was non-binding. A binding vote must be approved by the UN Security Council and it has not yet occurred. China and Russia have threatened to veto any such referral.

We are a non-profit organization run by students around the world, do you have any advice or message for the young people in the world who want to get involved in N. Korean human rights?

A: First, read some of the many great books that have appeared in recent years about North Korea. They include: Nothing to Envy, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, A Kim Jong Il Production, The Two Koreas, The Girl With Seven Names, and Under the Same Sky.
Then join forces or raise money for other organizations that help refugees and raise awareness. They include LiNK, Liberty in North Korea; and the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).

(Blaine Harden and Shin Dong-Hyuk photo Source/link–


On a summer day in Detroit, we chanced upon this youth education group brightening the city with their choir. We couldn’t miss the opportunity to spark some activism in these kids, as well as some great pictures.


The 3rd Annual Korean Dinner in Pictures

Even better turn out than last year!
Even better turn out than last year!
Our members and volunteers serving delicious Korean food
Our members and volunteers serving delicious Korean food to our guests

Our Dinner Entertainment

Hansori Korean Percussion Group of Eastern Michigan University setting an exciting mood for the dinner
Hansori Korean Percussion Group of Eastern Michigan University setting an exciting mood for the dinner
Art Lab J's performance, a beautiful representation of captivity and suffering in N. Korea
Art Lab J’s performance, a beautiful representation of captivity and suffering in N. Korea
A surprising show of illusions for the whole family by Han Ma Um Charity Org.
A surprising show of illusions for the whole family by Han Ma Um Charity Org.
Eun-Kyung Lee's richly authentic Korean fan dance performance
Eun-Kyung Lee’s rich and authentic Korean fan dance performance

Our Speakers

Translating for Distinguished Korean Actor Jee-Il Han speaking for N. Korean Human Rigths
Translating for Distinguished Korean Actor Jee-Il Han speaking for N. Korean Human Rigths
Mr. Jee-Il Han collecting donations from the crowd
Mr. Jee-Il Han using his charm to collect donations from the crowd
Congresswoman Dingell on the importance of the activism of our youth
Congresswoman Dingell on the importance of the activism of our youth
Speaking of our many accomplishments, our values, and our future plans
Speaking of our accomplishments, our values, and our future plans
Principal Do of Washtenaw International High School
Principal Do of Washtenaw International High School
Washtenaw International High's Chapter Advisor Ms. Joslyn Young congratulating our senior members
Washtenaw International High’s Chapter Advisor Ms. Joslyn Young congratulating our senior members
The senior members, who promise to form new chapters of EFO in their colleges; from left to right: Nico Borbeley, Dante Spencer, Jun-Sung Park, Shauna Paulson, Benjamin Bryant, and Brent Schin
The senior members, who promise to form new chapters of EFO in their colleges; from left to right: Nico Borbely, Dante Spencer, Jun-Sung Park, Shauna Paulson, Benjamin Bryant, and Brent Schin

And More!

Selling T-Shirts, as always
Selling T-Shirts, as always
More satisfied guests
Satisfied guests
Satisfied Guests
Some more satisfied guests
Member group photo!
Korean Dinner Team group photo, with clueless baby (on far right)


Preparing for the 3rd Annual Korean Dinner – WIHI Chapter

With our 3rd Korean Dinner, we hope to continue our pattern of annual growth with more food, guests, and entertainment for all. All of the funds we raise will be used to help our cause of improving the lives of North Korean defector children, and supporting their education with our scholarship program.

We owe our dinner entertainment to the generosity of Eun-Gyung Lee, who will perform solo traditional Korean dances; Hansori, Eastern Michigan University’s Korean Samul Nori percussion group; magician Jee-Il Han; and contemporary dancer Joo-Ri Jung.

Additionally, the Everyone’s Free Organization thanks all of the generous stores and restaurants (below) who have promised donations to make our third annual Korean Dinner at Washtenaw International High School possible.

Hana Korean Restaurant
Hana Korean Restaurant
BeWon Korean Restaurant
BeWon Korean Restaurant
Hyundai Market
Hyundai Market
Galleria Market
Galleria Market
Manna Oriental Market
Manna Oriental Market

We also thank Nagomi restaurant and the Soo Park Law Office (not shown above) for their generous donations.

St. Paul’s Co-ed College Raises Awareness of the Plight of North Korean Refugees, Shows Parts of “The Interview”


For the Hong Kong Chapter of Everyone’s Free, an awareness-raising campaign was held with the enthusiastic support from the local team members and teachers. The campaign displayed pictures, posters and artworks showing the current situation of North Korean refugees, with the team members acting as narrators to provide more detailed explanations to the schoolmates. Participants also watched a few interesting clips from the recent comedy “The Interview”. In the end the chapter president Charlie Wang gave a speech on how students could contribute to helping the North Korean refugees. The participants all expressed that they have not only gained much more knowledge on North Korean refugees, but also had a great time.