Monthly Archives: June 2012

North Korean Defector – Kim Choong Sung

As a counterpart to my Understanding North Korea articles, I did a few interviews with North Korean defectors. These people are  taking huge risks in talking to me, but they feel it is important to raise awareness of the difficulties faced by North Koreans.

Special thanks to M.Y. Sung, without whose translation these interviews would have been impossible.

Kim “Loyalty” Choong Sung. Defected in 2001, arrived in South Korea in 2004.

Who Are You?

I am from Ham-heung in Ham-gyeong-nam-do, a northern province in North Korea.

[For a while] life in North Korea was okay because I was a pop singer. NK-pop is like opera. I mean, North Korean pop singers learn a classical music style of singing. This is because in NK, singers should be able to sing without the help of a mic and speaker, like in the case of wartime, when no electricity would be available.

There are governmental auditions, so if one has a talent in singing, the government gives him or her the chance to receive university education.

‘Loyalty’ is not my original name. It was given to me by a missionary I met in China. ‘Loyalty’ is a word that appears frequently in the Bible. The missionary told me, “you’ve been loyal to Kim Il Sung, but now be loyal to God.”

Why did you Leave?

In other countries like Canada and South Korea, individuals can own gold, but in North Korea, they can’t. All gold belonged to Kim Jeong Il. So, if someone buys or sells gold, they are supposed to be executed. I had tried selling various things like salt, fish, and clothes, but at some point I couldn’t do it anymore because it was too hard [to make enough money]. Around that time, someone told me that I would be able to make a profit if I sell gold, though it’s dangerous. So I started selling gold, but got caught.

I got caught around the border between NK and China. And just one day before I got caught, Kim Jeong Il ordered to crack down on gold sellers and execute them. So I was about to be made an example of. I was told that I was going to be executed the next day. That night, I broke out of the jail, breaking the window that had steel bars. I broke the window, at night. The room had nothing but a window, no table, nothing. But I found an iron key ring on the window frame. With it, I broke the window. It took me 13 hours to do that.

How did You Escape?

I crossed the border with other eight people. Among them, there were three women, a mother and a daughter, and another named Young-hee (영희). Our nerves were on edge, worrying that we might get caught. We climbed mountains, walked through fields and paddies, and swamps. In that way, we walked across the border.

After I crossed the border, I lived in China for two years. During that time, I visited North Korea once, secretly. After that, I got caught again. So I have been caught twice overall. This time, I was very likely to be executed, so a missionary introduced me to a broker to help me.

While I was in China, I was living with two other North Korean defectors. A missionary was financially supporting us, but at some point he couldn’t do it anymore. We got kicked out of the house because we were not able to pay the rent. So, I parted with the two, living separately. Soon I heard that they had been arrested by the Chinese police when they had a fight with a Chinese taxi driver. I went to them and offered to [take their place in prison], so they were released. I did this believing that God would help me.

The police asked the taxi driver if he recognized me, if I was the person who had beat him. And, of course, he said he didn’t even know me. God helped me and I was released.

But after that encounter, the police asked my name and other personal information, as I didn’t have an ID card. I lied to them that I was the son of a deaconess I knew. I was attending her church, and I knew that her husband was a close friend of the head of the police station where I was arrested. A very close friend, like hanging-out-at-a-bar-together-every-night close. The police believed me and let me go.

There is a route from North Korea, to China, and then through Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and to Thailand, which is used by many North Korean defectors. Mnay finally come to South Korea via Thailand. But when I reached Vietnam, I couldn’t go any further. When I arrived in Saigon, I was so exhausted that I couldn’t walk more. Overall I had walked for six months.

There were five shelters for North Korean defectors in Vietnam, where around 460 defectors had been protected. As they became too many, the South Korean government discussed with UN and decided to charter two planes and carry the defectors directly from Vietnam to South Korea. The planes took off on July 26th, about 6 months after I arrived in Vietnam.

After I arrived in South Korea, I was interrogated by the South Korean government for 3 months, and then, I got South Korean citizenship.

What Are the Main Differences Between North and South Korea?

First, the economy. And also that there is freedom here. In South Korea, even if someone criticizes the president, are not arrested. In North Korea, if someone calls Kim Jeong Eun just Kim Jeong Eun, I mean, without a proper title, they can get arrested.

Another thing I like about South Korea is that here I can get rewarded for my hard work. Now I work in as a DJ for the Far East Broadcasting Company and do I some musical performances as well. Working as a singer [in North Korea] did not guarantee enough food. In South Korea, I can get what my hard work deserves. If I sing here as much as I did in North Korea, I would become rich. In North Korea, I sang 24/7, but I didn’t get what my hard work deserved. Here, if I sing one song, I can get a certain amount of money, like 400,000-500,000 KRW.

Somehow, I was able to get the jobs, but [for many North Koreans] it is very difficult. A case like mine is rare, I think because I worked as a singer. You know, music is universal. If you can read musical scores and have some basic skills related to music, you can work anywhere. As for most other North Koreans, what they learned in North Korea is useless here. So they usually do physical labor.

What is the Future of North Korea?

Ultimately, I hope the NK government will collapse. And as I’m a missionary, after North Korea is opened, I might go somewhere else, like Africa. I will go wherever God wants me to go.

My family has been arrested, and my brother got arrested recently – in March of this year. He got caught while he was talking with me on the phone. I don’t know if he is going to be sent to a political prisoner camp or if he will be executed. He got arrested while I was protesting this March. So I can’t stop protesting. [If anything] I should speak up more. After the arrest, I haven’t talked to him. All I’ve heard so far is that he was arrested. I sent to my family about $20 000 USD, telling them to try to get him out of jail with that money. But it seems impossible.

Now, I’m [protesting] in order to get people to know about me. I’m not trying to hide. It could be more dangerous, but it could be less dangerous, too. I’m gambling now. If I become famous here, my family might be less likely to be harmed.

Whether in Canada, the US, the UK, or South Korea, individuals have freedom. But North Koreans do not have freedom. If they say something problematic, they get arrested, as there is no freedom of speech there. If they protest like I am doing now, they would get arrested and executed. There is no freedom of religion, either. So there is no freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, or freedom of religion there.

What I want to say is this: Everyone’s life is equally valuable whether he or she is the President, you, me, a North Korean defector, or a dying child in Africa.

In North Korea, most people’s life means nothing. North Korea is a country only for 1% of the people. In any country, great media or journalists consider human, individual life to be the most important, not just big economic or political issues. I think a genuine journalist is one who focuses on and talks about human life. This article, your pen, could save the people in political prisoner’s camps in North Korea, including my brother. The subtle difference coming from your pen might kill or save a person.

NOTE: These interviews have been edited for readability, but in no way has context been altered. 


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Gasan Chinatown

While I work on posting some of the interviews I did with North Korean defectors, here are a few photos from the small Chinatown near Gasan, Seoul.

An elderly woman walks slowly past a small manufacturing business in Gasan's small Chinatown

This very friendly man was thrilled when I gave him my camera to play with for a few minutes.

Running full speed down a hill seems like a great way to spend Sunday afternoon.

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Understanding North Korea – Part 3

The third and final part of my article Understanding North Korea, set to be published in Groove magazine’s July issue, along with a few interviews I’ve done with North Korean defectors. Read Understanding North Korea | Part 1 and Understanding North Korea | Part 2 here.

The Dawning of Awareness

Contrary to common assumptions, modern North Koreans are not completely cut off from the outside world, as the previous generations were. While tunable radios are banned (all radios must, by law, have their tuners fixed to the government stations), cheap Chinese made DVD players are not a rarity. At approximately $30 USD, a DVD player costs a little less than an average North Korean earns in a month. Not cheap, but not overly expensive either – an investment comparable to buying a used car, for example. Certainly not something found in every home, but a realistic purchase for a substantial cross section of society.

Ostensibly permitted so citizens can enjoy biopics of their Dear Leaders, DVD players have given North Koreans the chance to glimpse the outside world through the lens of martial arts films from Hong Kong and South Korean dramas. The cultural impact of the humble DVD is great – Lankov’s colleagues in North Korea have reported that South Korean parts of speech and forms of address are starting to permeate the language.

The political ramifications of such international awareness are obviously undesirable from the regime’s point of view, which has spent decades indoctrinating its people in the evil ways of its Southern neighbor. North Korean propaganda about the South has been so pervasive that many citizens are unable to believe all of what they see in the imported dramas. For them the notion that nearly every South Korean household can afford a car is astonishingly contrary to what they have been told. Just as the North Korean government greatly exaggerates the opulence of its nation, they expect the South Korean government to do the same. But, as Lankov points out, “they do understand there are some things that cannot be faked – the cityscape of Seoul, for example. It is beginning to dawn on them that South Korea is doing well.”

This dawning awareness of South Korea’s modern success can be seen in the changing propaganda methods employed by the Kim administration. While once they asserted that the South was so poor that students had to sell their blood to pay for textbooks, they are reluctantly admitting that South Koreans are not in fact impoverished.

Traditional propaganda campaigns followed the Communist model of portraying North Korea as an industrial powerhouse, glorifying steel mills and smoke stacks while showing South Korea as a place of thatch houses, unpaved roads and sinister looking American soldiers. Now, however, the trend seems to have reversed, with the South depicted as a hellish inferno of pollution and suffocating toxic clouds. Conversely, North Korea is shown to be a pristine natural paradise through posters of political leaders interacting with common citizens in verdant fields and near crystal clear mountain streams. One specific campaign featured a cartoon turtle that was dying in the chemical wastelands of South Korea, and so was forced to flee to the pure waters of the North where he happily splashed for ever after.

Sinister American GIs throw babies down a well

Depicting North Korea as an industrial powerhouse was once a preferred form of propaganda.

As awareness of the outside world's economic successes dawns, North Korean propaganda is shifting to portray the country as naturally pristine.


The Future

Claiming to know the future of North Korea for certain is pure hubris, but based on the current trends, and testimonials from recent defectors, it is possible to speculate with some hope of accuracy. What is clear is that North Korea is changing, and in a typical communist dictatorship change marks the beginning of the end. Unfortunately for the Kim dynasty, the end will be harsh and very likely violent, predicts Lankov.

“I talk with the North Koreans a lot, roughly four or five times per week,” says Lankov, “and what is clear is that people who are now in their 20’s and early 30’s have very different ideas from their parents. They know North Korea is a poor place and they are [relatively] less afraid of the government. They no longer feel the Kim Jong Il method is the only method. While these people are still young, they will soon become the majority.”

Ironically, what is preventing the collapse of the North Korean regime is, in many ways, its enemies. With the possible exception of the US, most outside powers do not want the status quo to change. In a sense, the Kims are unusually lucky dictators.

South Korea, the nation that would seemingly be most eager to end the war, is perhaps the most wary of reuniting. Though lip service is usually paid in favor of reunification, a significant number of youth will admit that while they support the idea in theory, they do not want to deal with the realities – namely the huge cost to South Korean taxpayers. “I definitely support reunification,” says Hwang In Gi, a graduate student in Seoul, “as long as we don’t have to pay for it.”

This may sound like a heartless attitude, but South Koreans have worked exceptionally hard over the last five decades to transform their country into an economic success. For the average taxpayer, the cost of reunification would be substantial. If the United States annexed all of Central America, for example, and then asked American citizens pay for the cost of modernizing and improving the quality of life in the new territories, there would be predictable outrage. Asking South Koreans to pay for reunification is much the same except that in this case, North Korea has been threatening to kill them for the last 70 years.

Though South Koreans might not want to rush into reunification, North Korea will inevitably collapse. Exactly how is a matter of debate, but Lankov suggests several possibilities: An overly zealous police officer could go too far with a physical punishment and spark a violent riot which would spread across the country, forcing Kim Jong Eun and his elites into exile. Perhaps elements of the military that have less of a stake in the regime will decide it is time for a change in the power structure and stage a coup. It is even possible that Kim Jong Eun secretly desires to implement massive reforms and pursue political economic models that he studied while living in Switzerland. Maybe he has a bleeding heart and just wants all his people to be happy. It is impossible to know anything for certain.

But no matter what happens, sooner or later something will; the system is broken and unstable. “I would not be surprised if we learned tomorrow that there are riots [in North Korea],” says Lankov. “But I would be equally unsurprised if in 2027 we are discussing the 25th successful long range nuclear missile test. Being outsiders, we can know only that their system is rotten, but not how seriously. We just can’t know.”

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