Former MP Barry Devolin will be speaking on Dec. 12 about North Korean defectors in South Korea and the parallels that exist with Indigenous people from remote communities moving to Canada's urban areas. /DARREN LUM File photo

Barry Devolin to discuss North Korean defectors

By Jenn Watt

Published Dec. 4 2018

Barry Devolin is best known locally for serving as the riding’s MP for 11 years but politics isn’t the core of his interest. He says he sees himself primarily as a traveller who spent some time in politics.

His interest started in his teens when he visited Greece Mexico and The Netherlands the latter on a one-year exchange.

Two decades ago he and his wife Ursula travelled to South Korea to teach English and when Devolin was MP he further cultivated his relationship with that country.

“When I was elected in 2004 I went off to Ottawa to do my thing but in 2006 the government was looking for individual members who would work as a liaison with different new Canadian communities. I volunteered. When I saw the list and saw Korea was on it I picked that one” he recalls.

Named assistant deputy speaker in 2008 Devolin had to separate himself from the partisan side of his work with Korea but he was able to continue working on human rights issues.

Seven years later after leaving politics altogether he says it was the “logical stepping stone” for the family to move to South Korea where Devolin became a professor of public administration and politics to international students.

He began researching the challenges facing North Korean defectors living in South Korea.

His observations on this group as well as the history of the two countries will form the basis of his talk Strangers in their Own Land part of the Yours Outdoors speaker series Telling Our Stories. His talk is Wednesday Dec. 12 at the Haliburton Fish Hatchery and will include the research Devolin has done into the parallels between the lives of North Korean defectors and some of the barriers facing Indigenous people from remote communities in Canada who move to the country’s more urban spaces.

“That’s where the phrase Strangers in their Own Land comes from because in both cases the people involved are not in a foreign country; they’re still in their own country. And yet they’re having challenges and difficulties in many cases greater than a typical refugee or newcomer. People coming to South Korea from Mongolia or from Vietnam were often more accepted in social situations than North Korean defectors” he says.

He says sometimes the defectors were seen by South Koreans as needing to be deprogrammed from their previous lives.

“The perception would be we got on the right path of capitalism and liberal democracy and those things and the North Koreans they’re just malprogrammed and they’re brainwashed” Devolin says of the perspective some hold which can make it hard for North Korean defectors to integrate fully into South Korean society.

This can lead to discrimination against North Koreans who can be identified through their regional dialect.

In this way they share an injustice with Indigenous people in Canada: “How they feel deeply and systemically discriminated against. And they feel like that because they are. It’s not a misperception.”

The conflict between North Korea and South Korea should be of particular interest to the world today as it is one of the few remaining vestiges of the Second World War and Cold War.

“The last couple years we’ve had all these anniversaries related to World War One and World War Two and things from the 20th century” Devolin says. “Well the reality on the Korean Peninsula today is a consequence of World War Two and subsequently the Cold War. To us it’s all over now; in Korea it’s not over. When you go to the DMZ [demilitarized zone] the guy on the other side [of the border] with a machine gun with real bullets in it that’s the Cold War. You can personally confront it. … It’s not gone in Korea. It’s still there.”

Devolin and his family moved back to Haliburton recently and he has started working in the travel industry as a tour director for DeNure Tours and is starting his own tour company to take small groups on trips.

He says travel has the potential to broaden people’s horizons and expand their understanding of the world. He hopes to make travel more accessible for more people.

Barrie Martin owner of Yours Outdoors and an organizer of the speaker series along with Sean Pennylegion said the goal of the series is to connect the Haliburton audience with people who have travelled the world.

Telling Our Stories speaker series is in its third year and has consistently attracted sizeable audiences to its venue at the fish hatchery in Haliburton.

“People are just fascinated with stories. If you can’t go to Iceland or climb a mountain … you [can] live vicariously through other people’s stories” Martin says.

In the past the series has included ice skater Kurt Browning artist Mary Anne Barkhouse Ted Barris author of Victory at Vimy radio personality Mike Jaycock and many others.

Martin says he hopes the series inspires more people to travel.

“Maybe they’re keen to go and [after listening to the talk] have a bit more information and awareness and confidence to travel themselves” he says.

Proceeds from all speaker series talks are divided between Yours Outdoors the speaker and a local conservation group. Donations in the past have gone to the Haliburton Highlands Land Trust Friends of Environmental and Ecological Learning field naturalists wildlife rehab and others.

Upcoming speakers in the new year include foresters Peter Hynard and Ernie Demuth former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant and guitar maker William Laskin.

Barry Devolin’s talk Strangers in Their Own Land is scheduled for Wednesday Dec. 12 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the fish hatchery. Tickets are $10 and can be reserved by going to or by calling 705-754-3436 or 705-457-7557.