A North Korean soldier worked at the demilitarized zone (DMZ), the border separating North and South Korea, for nine years before he made the life-changing decision to escape to the South in 1979. The journey would be incredibly dangerous with a small chance of survival, but he decided to risk death rather than face the recent mandate to re-enter North Korean civil society and attend college.

As the soldier began his journey South, he encountered a high voltage power line near the border. He waited until the power was off momentarily as troops passed through and crossed over undetected only to face a more dangerous obstacle ahead, a minefield stretching over 4 kilometers (2.5 miles). Miraculously, the soldier made it across unharmed and eventually reached his destination of Seoul.

To him, the city of Seoul was heaven on earth in comparison to Pyongyang in the North; the cars, buildings and overall development were amazing. The TV dramas and songs of South Korea, which he never saw or heard before, were also impressive. His biggest struggle in South Korea was loneliness, but that did not stop him from enrolling in college and eventually earning his Ph.D. in political science. Ironically, he escaped from North Korea to avoid studying but found happiness in his new life as an academic in South Korea.

Mr. Suk-hong Kim presents the Free Democracy Award to Dr. Chan Il Ahn (right)

Dr. Chan Il Ahn became the first North Korean defector to earn a Ph.D. in South Korea. He is currently the President of The World Institute for North Korean Studies, Visiting Professor at Columbia University, Defense Policy Advisor for the Ministry of National Defense, and President of the Korean Association for North Korean Studies. He is involved in initiatives to assist North Korean defectors in South Korea, to bring awareness to the human rights issues in North Korea, and to advance Korean reunification.

As the Co-Chair of Action for Korea United (AKU), Dr. Ahn is working with a broad coalition of civic organizations to bring public awareness and support for Korean reunification. AKU is advancing the Korean Dream, a vision for a unified Korea based on the spiritual heritage of the Korean people, through the One Korea Global Campaign. The history of Korea reveals a unique blend of philosophies and religions that have contributed to the moral development of their culture and society and the formation of the Korean Dream. The vision for an enlightened nation that benefits humanity is not new to Korea; this ideal is an unfulfilled dream that AKU is reawakening in the hearts of Koreans from all walks of life in the North and South and around the world.

On April 20, 2018, Dr. Ahn received the Jeong Il-hyeong, Lee Tae-young Free Democracy Award in the category of democratic unification for his work towards Korean reunification and his advocacy for the rights and interests of North Korean defectors. The award, established in 1997, honors Dr. Il-hyeong Jeong (1904-1982), who dedicated his life to Korean independence and democracy and his wife Dr. Tae-young Lee (1914-1998), Korea’s first female lawyer to run the Korea Legal Aid Center for Family Relations and who has worked to promote women’s rights.

April 20, 2018 at the Chungmu Art Hall Convention Center in Seoul

The award ceremony took place at the Chungmu Art Hall Convention Center in Seoul with over 200 people in attendance, including Mr. Byung-chan Kim, Gwan-yong Park, the former Chair of the National Assembly, Congressman Young-ho Kim, and Mr. Tae Young Park, an Advisory Research Fellow at the National Security Strategy Research Institute.

Dr. Ahn has also appeared on several television shows over the years promoting a unified Korea. When asked if North Koreans had easy access to information in South Korea in a recent interview on the Korean television network Arirang, he responded, “Twenty years ago, if one were caught singing a song from South Korea, one would get shot. But now, the Hallyu songs, dramas and movies are spreading to North Korea. Of course, they still don’t have complete liberty to see it in public, but they either sing at night under their blankets or sing with their friends in secret.”

Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, is the rising popularity and spread of Korean culture that includes TV dramas and pop music which has spread across the globe since the 1990s. Dr. Ahn believes Hallyu culture has spread to the younger generation in North Korea and stated, “A lot of people tend to think unification would be hard, but I think that if ‘culture’ has already unified the two Koreas, I don’t think it’s impossible to unify Korea politically and economically as well.”