It's our loss

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2011, 12:00am


He's a good-natured teenager who likes Disneyland, enjoys a laugh, has dyed hair and a girlfriend. He could be a typical Hong Kong secondary student except for the fact that his grandfather is North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Kim Han-sol was admitted to Hong Kong's prestigious Li Po Chun United World College but was refused a visa to study here. No one knows the official reason for the visa snub, but Dr Stephen Codrington, the school's former principal who interviewed and admitted Han-sol, has said his family connections could be the cause. Han-sol is the son of the exiled Kim Jong-nam, who in 2001 was arrested for entering Japan on a false Dominican passport.

It wouldn't surprise me if politics was the reason for the rejection. And, if so, that would be a tragedy. Whether a child is allowed to study in Hong Kong should depend solely on that child's characteristics rather than on family ancestry. To reject someone simply because of the politics of his or her relatives is baseless and discriminatory. Shortly after the September 11 attacks happened in the United States, I found out that a fellow student at Harvard was a relative of Osama bin Laden. Were we surprised? Yes. Did we think he should leave the school? No.

Immigration officers should know that judging people on their own actions and not those of their relatives is one of the pillars of a free and fair society. According to Codrington, Han-sol is a well-balanced, confident, charismatic and idealistic young man who is interested in improving conditions for his people.

Hong Kong's United World College, with its progressive values and mission, would have been just the place to inspire him. At UWC, students come from more than 80 countries and from all backgrounds to live and study together. The majority of students receive financial aid.

Notably, in Hong Kong, the government mandates that 40 per cent of its student body be from Hong Kong. This is higher than the 25 per cent mandate of other countries with United World College schools. Had Han-sol been allowed to study here, he would have been able to interact with many talented Hong Kong students, gaining first-hand knowledge of life in this Asian society that is not so far away from homeland but upholds free markets and free speech.

Codrington points out that the school's socioeconomic diversity helps teach important lessons within the school walls - the students of means learn that life is not always so easy, while the students without means learn that the rich are not always out to exploit. No doubt these powerful lessons would have served Han-sol well should he decide to go back to his motherland to effect change. Likewise, Hong Kong students would have been given a rare personal glimpse into an almost completely off-limits nation. Isn't this the whole point of education - to expose, exchange, and inspire?

The world can fault, dread and avoid Kim Jong-il all it wants but the only way to true reform is through educating the young. We should have greeted Han-sol with open arms instead of irrational fear.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.