In August 1996, the Venerable Pomnyun, a Buddhist monk from South Korea, was cruising down the Yalu River between China and North Korea when he saw a boy squatting alone at the North Korean edge of the water. The boy was in rags, his gaunt face covered in dirt.
Pomnyun shouted to him, but the boy did not respond. Pomnyun’s Chinese companion explained that North Korean children were instructed never to beg from foreigners. And when Pomnyun asked if the boat could be steered closer to the child to bring help, he was reminded that they could not enter North Korean territory.
“Never before had I realized the meaning of a border so painfully until that day,” said Pomnyun, 59. “Never before had I felt so acutely that Korea is a divided nation.”
The encounter led him to establish one of the first relief campaigns for North Korean refugees and to take on an unlikely role for a Buddhist monk. Today, rather than leading a secluded life of quiet contemplation, he is a well-known commentator on North Korea, his online newsletter a vital source of information smuggled out of the isolated nation.
Before his Yalu trip, Pomnyun had refused to believe his Chinese acquaintances’ stories about countless North Koreans dying of hunger as the country’s food rationing system collapsed in the midst of a famine. However, once he was confronted with the evidence, the monk, who was running a charity in India, sent volunteers to northeastern China, providing food and shelter for the thousands of North Korean refugees who had begun straggling over the river border.
When his organization, Good Friends, released photographs of the bodies of North Koreans who had drowned in the river, too exhausted to complete the last leg of their desperate journey for food, it provided some of the first documentation of what was later recognized as one of the most horrific famines of the late 20th century. As many as 3 million people out of a population of 22 million died of hunger or hunger-related diseases.
What shook Pomnyun was not only the tales that refugees told of families trying to live on pine tree bark and wild roots, but also the outside world’s ignorance of their plight.
“World leaders and the media talked obsessively about [late North Korean leader] Kim Jong-il and his nuclear weapons and missiles,” Pomnyun said. “But what about the North Korean people?”
Pomnyun’s group began to chronicle the disaster, interviewing more than 5,000 refugees as they arrived in China and publishing a series of reports and books on their struggles. When Good Friends began publishing its newsletter in 2004, it quickly became a must-read among South Korean policymakers and journalists.
The first of its kind, the newsletter provided timely accounts of life in North Korea from anonymous informers inside the country, some of whom had returned home after being aided by the charity. They communicated via smuggled cellphones and other means that Pomnyun refused to disclose.
When the newsletter, North Korea Today, also went online, it became a prototype for other Web sites. Together, the sites have helped breach what had been a near-total information blackout on North Korea for decades. They monitor the price of food and carry running, though sometimes conflicting, updates on floods and epidemics.
Pomnyun leads his own temple in a provincial town, as well as study programs in meditation and Buddhist scripture across the country. Born to a rural farming family, Pomnyun grew up with older brothers who were religiously and politically active; one was sentenced to death under the military dictatorship of the time for anti-government activity, but was later released.