Tag Archives: interviews

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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Under Pressure: Byun Ho San – Part 1

In the first half of my seventh interview about the fast paced and high pressure nature of Korean society, I talk with Byun Ho San. Mr. Byun is a 55 year old industrialist who grew up in a rural community to the Northwest of Seoul in the aftermath of the Korean War. In childhood he farmed his family’s land with oxen and wooden carts. Since then Ho San has risen to astounding heights – he is now the owner of the worlds second largest supplier of conductive plastics and his client list includes giants like Samsung and Texas instruments. An utterly modest man, it is all but impossible to get him to admit the true extent of his achievements.

The interview I did with Mr Byun was much longer than usual, mostly due to the wealth of information he was willing to share, and because of the depth of his insights into the forces driving his society. For the sake of readability, I have split the transcription into two parts. In this first half, The Birth of Bali Bali, Mr. Byun describes the events and the political situation which gave birth to Korea’s notorious social hustle.

I will post a condensed version of the full interview later; I’m try to get all of these interviews edited down to an appropriate length for their upcoming print publication, and its eating up most of my time.

After doing quite a few of these interviews, I want to make it clear at this point that all of the people I have talked to are proud to be Korean and love their country. The topic being discussed is an unfortunately negative aspect of Korean culture, and therefore elicits  appropriately negative responses. 
Note: None of these people speak English as a first language. They are of varying English proficiency levels from beginner to very advanced and in some cases translation was needed. To improve readability and cohesiveness, some gramatical edits have been made where necessary. In no way has meaning or context been altered.

Byun Ho San, 55 – Industrialist

Byun Ho San, 55

The Birth of Bali Bali

Most Koreans tend to be very hurried; I guess its our new culture. When my parents were young, they didn’t hurry in the same way. After the Korean War, the Korean situation was the worst in the world – we were one of the poorest countries, like the Congo or somewhere like that. The country was devastated. A lot of people died. Our parents educated us that we should work very hard, and study very hard, otherwise we could not survive. There was no food and nothing to drink.

For survival [during the war years] my parents had to really hurry. They worked very hard, but at that time they were already adults. When the Japanese occupied Korea, there was no need to hurry up because there was no reason – they couldn’t make money anyways. There was a dictatorship, so even if they hurried up they could not gain any extra money.

It was the children of the wartime who were the first to really experience the bali bali (quickly quickly) culture. There was no food and we could only eat once or twice per day. The Americans gave us a lot of low-grade corn and during my elementary school days, and we used to have cornmeal every day. There was no food, so this was very delicious. There was no rice, no bread.

Whenever we came home from school, we had to work with our parents on the farms using oxen and raising chickens and pigs. During the daytime we had to work very hard and at night we had to study. Back then I had a good memory so I had to study a lot. But we had no electricity so we had to study using lanterns – it was very unfashionable! When I would wake up the next morning and look in the mirror, I would have a black nose from the fumes. This was not a very long time ago.

When I was 10, electricity came to the countryside. The people were very surprised; it was very bright. It looked like we were liberated from the black world. We had serious hardships during our childhood days, so I could taste the value of electricity. The young generation had to work to overcome a lot of obstacles.

The famous dictator [Park Chung Hee] did many things for Korea. He ruled by dictatorship, but he could not help it. It was a very dangerous situation; if Korea had tried democracy, we would have been bankrupt – like the Philippines. Previously the Philippines had been very rich, much richer than Korea. Park Chung Hee made his best effort to improve our life quality and came up with a lot of ideas to develop and improve our country. He made a policy of rural revolution and he spread a “can do attitude”. So people were continuously told “we can do it”. They broadcast it over the radio: If we co-operate together, we can do it. If we was to be successful, we had to hurry up. There was not enough time for anyone, including me. Because of this new attitude, Korean people could reach our current status as a developed country.

So my generation all worked together under this attitude. Now I have two daughters, and I had to educate them in the same way – even 10 years ago Korea was still developing. Also, Korean mothers are special. They are very diligent and they focus all their energy on the education of their children. I think this is the same as mothers from other places, but Korean mothers are much more aggressive!

So bali bali culture made our country what it is. When I started my business, I though that there would be no chance to overcome Japanese technology. When I was 35 I had a chance to go to Tokyo – I wanted to import antistatic products. It was my first visit and I was very curious about Japan. When I arrived at the airport I was very surprised. At that time there were not many cars in Korea, but in Tokyo I could see so many luxurious cars. I couldn’t imagine how Korea could overcome. I was humbled.

Now 30 years has passed. Samsung started by importing technology for black and white TVs from Japan. They started to make superconductors, which the analysts said was crazy. For seven years they had a deficit. We never could have imagined that Samsung would conquer them all. It is because of the bali bali attitude. Samsung works twice as much as their competitors like Sony and General Electric. By working hard and by continuous imitation, the level of technology is the same as international companies, and more.

Thinking of when I was a young man in Japan, I could not believe that I would see a Korean company overcome a Japanese company. But right now it is reality. It is the same with many industries. Pohang Steel is a top business and our shipbuilding is the best. One by one we are becoming number one in the world. It is the same “can do” attitude that was repressed by the Japanese for 35 years – no rights, no culture. Now we know the real value of Koreans. Korean people now know how to win – it is bali bali.

This is very useful for industry, but it is bad for the soul.

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Under Pressure: Oh Jae Kyong

In third installment of my interview series examining the high-pressure nature of modern Korean society, I talk with Jae Kyong Oh, a 30 year old International Education Consultant. Jae Kyong gives a distinctly female perspective on stress in her country, and specifically how it relates to being a prospective mother. Having lived in California for more than 7 years, Jae Kyong is also in a special position to comment on her native country as it compares to the Western world.

After doing quite a few of these interviews, I want to make it clear at this point that all of the people I have talked to are proud to be Korean and love their country. The topic being discussed is an unfortunately negative aspect of Korean culture, and therefore elicits  appropriately negative responses. 
Note: None of these people speak English as a first language. They are of varying English proficiency levels from beginner to very advanced and in some cases translation was needed. To improve readability and cohesiveness, some gramatical edits have been made where necessary. In no way has meaning or context been altered.

Oh Jae Kyong, 30

International Education Consultant

Oh Jae Kyong, 30

Where does pressure come from in Korea?

I think Korean society has become very stratified in a way. Moving between classes is getting harder and harder, and conflict between the classes, between the high incomes and low incomes is getting very [intense].

After the war in the 70’s and 80’s, the majority of people in Korea were not rich. Everyone worked hard so they could get a better job, but after 20 or 30 years, that upwards movement has pretty much stopped. Before, when everyone was poor, it was easier to get a better job and to get better pay by having a good education. But nowadays, poor people cannot get a good education. That is a problem in Korea.

In the normal education system I don’t think teachers are working very hard. Being a teacher used to be a very good job, and while still it is a good job, students don’t really respect teachers anymore. They think that they get better education from private tutors because they pay more. So the teachers are not working hard to keep up with what the students want.

Parents are pushing their children to do more private tutoring all the time because they believe the public education is not good enough. So I guess they are giving this idea to their children and it devalues the system.

What Kind of Personal Pressure Do You Feel?

Because I got a degree from the US, it was a little bit easy for me to get a job. I can speak English and Korean pretty much fluently so that was easy for me at first. But my personal stress level comes from the Korean lifestyle. By law [in other countries] there is an 8-hour work day, and if you work more you get paid more. But in Korea, most companies don’t really pay for overtime. For me I go to work at 9.30 a.m. and supposedly the day should end at 6 p.m., but I work until 7. It’s not really a lot compared to other people, but still these hours are not flexible. The pay is OK, but you have to work really, really hard. I don’t have time to go to the restroom because I have to focus all the time. If you boss stays late, then you have to stay late, too.

But I think the most stress comes from being a woman. In Korea there are not many laws for women, they are not really protected in society. Being a newly married couple, both the husband and wife have to work to manage [financially]. If a woman needs to take a break for maternity leave, its not really allowed. If you leave to take care of your child, it’s really hard to get a job afterwards. Being a future mom, just thinking about it is really hard. In Korea they are not really supportive at all – maternity leave is only 3 months.

What is the solution?

I hope that the government makes more detailed laws supporting women in the workplace, especially about maternity leave. But when I look at the current government, I don’t really have hope. I try to like our president, and I don’t really want to be angry with him, it’s just that I don’t really see how they are going to help us. I need to find a solution for myself, either from religion, or by trying to make more income so I can hire a babysitter to allow me to keep working.

In Korea the university tuition is increasing. It costs about the same to send your child to a private university in Seoul as it does to send them to a state university in the US, so I thought about sending my kids overseas – or moving away from Korea. But because my parents live here and I want to be close to them I’m still deciding. If I have enough money I will probably send my kids overseas. I can’t imagine them growing up in Seoul in a very high-pressure society, trying to be at the top and having to compete with everyone. They won’t get to enjoy their life.

Koreans don’t even really enjoy their hobbies. They don’t really know what to do because they’ve never been encouraged to do something they like. They’ve just been encouraged to do something which is the majority of society thinks is good. If people think taking photos is cool, then everyone buys a camera. Or if they think golf is a luxury sport, they try to play golf all the time just to show they’re rich. Hobbies are not really hobbies in Korea, they are just to show your class.

The main reason I chose to leave the US and come back to Korea was that I experienced a glass ceiling being a minority there. There was a limit to my opportunity. Americans are not really racist or anything, there is not really discrimination but if you try to move up at a job it hard for minorities. At least in Korea I can work hard and move up. The door to move between classes is getting narrower than before, but still it’s possible. I guess that’s why Korean people work hard and diligently to get better and better.

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Under Pressure: Kwon Ji Hoon

In the second installment of my interview series examining the high-pressure nature of modern Korean society, I talk with Kwon Ji-Hoon, a 25 year old university student who shares his views on the causes of stress in his culture. As a student, Ji-Hoon is in a unique position to comment on the pressures Korea’s youth face as they prepare to enter a highly competitive job market.

Note: None of these people speak English as a first language. They are of varying English proficiency levels from beginner to very advanced and in some cases translation was needed. To improve readability and cohesiveness, some gramatical edits have been made where necessary. In no way has meaning or context been altered.

Kwon Ji-Hoon, 25 – Student

Kwon Ji-Hoon, 25

Where Does Pressure in Korea come from?

When I was a high school student I had a lot of pressure because if my friends or kids in my neighbourhood went to study math or science, my mother also felt like she also had to send me to an academy. So it is a bad circle. A lot of children go to academies to study, and it makes them competitive with each other. Students especially have a lot of pressure.

Many parents want their children to go to a good university, but as you know the universities choose a limited number of people. So that’s why we compete with each other, my friends and I.

I think students feel pressure from their parents because their parents expect them to always do better. I also had a lot of pressure from my parents. When I took an exam and got a bad score, but I had tried to study hard, my parents didn’t care about that. Just the score. So I got depressed. Some parents pay a lot of attention to their children. If the parents expect more than their children’s skill allows, maybe they will have a lot of pressure.

I think in our country there is a lot of pressure because it is small, but the population is so much compared to other countries. But the jobs or university places are limited. So our country has a lot of angry ill (aggression disorders) because of the stress. 30 or 40 percent of people have this anger.

 Is there a solution?

I think that it is impossible for the pressure to stop. If the education system totally changes, maybe the stress can be reduced; but I think it’s impossible. To totally change the education system is too difficult. So in my country it is like a bad cycle. It is impossible.

I’m a university student. I have pressure to get a good job. I think maybe all university students are worried about getting a job. 10 years ago when we went to university, people would get together for drinking or activities, but nowadays many people just study. As I get older, I have to be responsible for myself.

When will the pressure stop?

The only time I felt no pressure is when I was young, like in Kindergarten. Also…no, just kindergarten. The pressure started in elementary school. But nowadays the kindergartens also have pressure.

Sometimes I don’t feel the pressure. I try to do my hobbies, like travel or exercise with my friends or relax. But just during this time [I don’t feel pressure]. After that I am getting the pressure back.


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Under Pressure: High Stress in Korean Society

There is a tendency among many expats to align themselves along an us-vs-them axis in South Korea. That is to say that many members of the foreign community (typically teachers or soldiers) feel that they are the “normal” people living in a strange and illogical society. Expats often don’t understand why Koreans are the way they are here, and a lot of the time they don’t really want to find out.

I’m no expert on the intricacies of Korean society, but I feel that when living in someone else’s country there is a responsibility to take the time to answer these sorts of questions, rather than simply dismissing an entire culture as being nonsensical or weird.

So I started asking questions and conducting interviews – sometimes with friends, sometimes with co-workers, and sometimes with people I barely know – to try and get a more personal kind of insight into what makes this society tick. The first such issue I have begun to explore is that of pressure.

Korea is notorious for being one of the most faced paced, stressful, and high pressure environments on the planet – and I want to know what that means for average citizens. Over the course of 20+ interviews, I am trying to find out the answers to some basic questions: Where does the pressure come from? How does it affect people’s lives? Is there a solution?

Those interviewed are of varied backgrounds. They have different jobs, they are different ages, and they (for the most part) don’t know each other. Hopefully some common themes will emerge so people can begin to understand rather than simply shaking their heads and muttering “crazy Koreans”.

Note: None of these people speak English as a first language. They are of varying English proficiency levels from beginner to very advanced and in some cases translation was needed. To improve readability and cohesiveness, some gramatical edits have been made where necessary. In no way has meaning or context been altered.

Hwang In-Gi, 27 – Ph.D Candidate

Hwang In-Gi, 27

What Causes Pressure in Korean Society?

Making money is the biggest problem. Compared to the money we usually spend, the money we make is not that much.

In Australia, even old people can get a job easily. Wal-Mart is a good example. They hire old people; even some of them are working in wheelchairs or something. In Korea it never happens. Once you get old, once your physical abilities are going down, it means that you are not able to make any more money. It means that you will be abandoned in society. And they are afraid of that. Korea is one of the most difficult countries to get a job once you reach your 50’s. Even if you are really eager to work, you can’t. How you look doesn’t really matter, it’s only about your age.

Compared to the States, we don’t have well-established pension plan, and many people are worried about that. The government is currently guaranteeing a very small pension, and the age for retirement is getting younger – they usually get fired when they reach 50, compared to Japan, where people usually retire in their late 60s or something. My uncle, he used to work for Samsung, and of course he made lots of money while he was working there. But he kind of got fired when he turned 52. Because he was old.

We need some kind of social system. I mean, in Australia, as long as you have the will to keep working, the company is not able to fire you unless you are a very naughty worker. But here, the CEO or whoever owns the company, they have a right to fire you anytime they want. They do this because they don’t want to pay more. Lets say this: with the amount of money they pay for one manager, they can hire four new young people.

Usually a manager at a company like LG would get paid 4.2 million won (about $3800), and a worker with two years experience would usually get paid 2.2 million. The efficiency of one manager is not as good as two young people. The company wants new people. It’s kind of a stereotype, but Korean people believe that younger people’s minds are new and fresh and flexible. On the other hand, old people do not want to change. We are living in a world where the need to change and adapt to new environments is very important, and they think old people can’t really do that.

 What Causes Pressure for You Personally?

For now, I’m 27, I just need to cover myself – no wife or kids – so I’m not really worrying about many things. But as soon as I get married and have a kid then I will feel like my Dad. We spend almost $800 000 – that is the amount of money we need to raise a kid. It is considered normal to pay for our children’s tuitions fees, even in university, and that is what my mom did. So she covered me until I got my bachelor’s degree.

Now the pressure comes from the money I need to get married. I need $100 000 to get married, usually. Men are supposed to buy a house and women are supposed to fill it with up with some electronics or something. Usually men will pay more. But there is no way I can make that amount of money considering what I’m doing now. I’m a student and I’m making a very small amount of money at my work. I want to get married before I turn 31, which is not really possible financially. Mentally and physically I’m ready, but financially is the big problem. I can get married, but it will be super tricky unless my wife’s parents are super rich.

Is there a solution? When does the pressure stop?

When we are in the tiny place called the grave. Unless we have a very stable financial plan, such as a pension – which only [approximately] 12% of Korean people get.

The consumption of liquor is very high in Korea. That is why most of the office workers drink a lot. That is the way, by drinking, that they relieve their stress. That is the typical way Korean people escape. Temporarily.

A real solution will only come with time. We need a change in our system. We need to collect more tax from rich people, but the government is doing the opposite. Actually the government has been reducing tax for rich people so that they can spend more money, and they believe that is the only way to revive the dying economy. But once they start gathering more tax, people will not like it. People will not understand. We only collect 12%, but in other countries the tax is almost 30 or 32 percent of their income. That is how they are able to raise the quality of life. I would be willing to pay more tax if the government could come up with a good plan.



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