Life for the average North Korean citizen is grim. Their dictator, Kim Jong-un, is ruthless, in the tradition of his father, and his father before him. The economy is anemic. Most of the population is poor. And without aid from its enemies, starvation would be widespread. It’s no surprise, then, to read accounts of people so desperate to get out that they will risk not only their life, but also the lives of anyone they have had any sort of close relationship with. And since three armies (South Korean, North Korean and U.S.) fortify the southern border, the only way out of the world’s last truly closed country is north, into China.
Would-be escapees must cross the Yalu (Amrok, in Korean) River and avoid detection by Chinese authorities on the other side. Beijing often repatriates North Koreans caught in China without proper documentation. Upon repatriation, the punishment is either death or detention. During the 100-day mourning period for the death of his father Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un mandated that anyone guilty of attempting to escape would be punished by having three generations of their family exterminated.
Once in China, the refugees begin the laborious process of trying to start a new life. Many head to South Korea via a third country, a route that usually takes them to Southeast Asia, some 3,000 kilometers away. Once in South Korea, they are given instant asylum and citizenship.
Following are interviews with two defectors who risked death and the safety of their families in North Korea to live in freedom abroad.
The first, Choi Joo-hual, is president of the Seoul-based Association of North Korean Defectors.
Occupation in North Korea: Worked for Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces
Escaped North Korea: 1995
Arrived in South Korea: 1995
Path to freedom: Into China
I was born in Cheong-jin, in the province of North Hamgyeong, and moved to Pyeongyang when I was 9. I joined the military when I was 20. I worked for the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces, in the military diplomacy division, for 23 years. I also worked for the North Korean embassy in the Czech Republic from 1979 to 1983.
Now I am the president of the Association of North Korean Defectors. It was established in February 1999 and has around 10,000 members. Although most of them are in South Korea, some are North Korean defectors in a third country, like some countries in Southeast Asia. They find and contact us through the Internet.
Basically, the purpose of the association is to help North Korean defectors settle down in South Korea or other countries. We cooperate with the Ministry of Unification, especially with its Resettlement Support Division, as well as the North Korean Refugees Foundation, a governmental organization that helps North Korean defectors. There are also some companies that are helping our association. We set up jobs for North Korean defectors in collaboration with partner companies.
Groove Korea: Why did you leave?
Choi Joo-hual: Something happened in 1994, which gave me a crucial motive to leave. Kim Jong-il summoned and executed with guns many of North Korea’s military officials who had been working in other countries for a long time, claiming that they were contaminated by bourgeois ideas, or revisionism, so to speak. He thought they had changed while they were staying outside of North Korea. As they had been living out of the country for such a long time, they started to talk about the problems within North Korea while they hung out with each other, drinking alcohol. They complained about the regime and talked about reforms and opening up. Such conversations were somehow reported to the North Korean secret police, and they were arrested one by one. At first, one or two got caught. But while they were being investigated, they were forced to tell the police whom they were with when they were complaining about North Korea. So, more and more got caught, and were forced to inform.
I think the North Korean regime maintains its power solely through dictatorship, oppression and causing fear. Even when someone says a slightly negative thing about Kim Jong-il, regardless of how high a position he or she might have in society, Kim executes not only that person, but also his or her whole family — sometimes even three generations of the family. Since I left, I have had no contact with my family, but I heard from someone I know that they were all sent to political prisoner camps.
What is the most difficult thing about defecting to South Korea?
Cultural differences, and differences in educational background and knowledge, though I’ve changed now. Now I like American movies, and do not enjoy Russian and European movies, which I used to like in the past. Now I feel that those European movies are too slow. I mean, the plots and stories unfold too slowly, while in American movies they unfold very quickly. I liked “Transformers” and “Blue Streak,” for example. I watch South Korean TV dramas, too. But I don’t like those sorts of dramas about family matters, you know, about extramarital affairs and so on. I don’t find them fun, and they make me feel sad. They remind of my family I had to leave in North Korea. Some South Korean TV dramas I enjoyed are “Giant” and “Salaryman Cho Han Ji.”
Why are North Korean defectors reluctant to tell their stories?
Most North Korean defectors are afraid to disclose their identity, so they usually refuse interview requests from the media. Few defectors are willing to do an interview with a journalist. They are worried about possible danger to their families in North Korea. My family was sent to the labor camps because I worked for the Ministry, and it was clear that I had defected to South Korea. But in many cases, it is not clear to the North Korean government, and even to the defector’s family members, whether the defectors really defected or just went missing.
So defectors want the government and their families to think that they are just missing because it is safer for (those left behind). In these cases, if a defector appears in South Korean media, the North Korean government will immediately know that they have defected and are not just missing. That’s why they don’t want to disclose their identity through media.
I’ve already been covered a lot by the media. I even held a press conference when I first came to South Korea. And I’ve been openly criticizing the North Korean government. And, as I said, my family has already been sent to the camps. That’s why I can do this; my situation is different from most other defectors’.
What does the future hold for North Korea?
I think the regime will not be able to maintain its power unless they reform and open North Korea to the outside world. Not collapse, just change. They will change economically first, then politically. What I mean by political change is something similar to China. Of course, it will take time. It won’t happen very soon. Maybe such changes will start four or five years from now.
Can you talk about forced repatriations of North Korean defectors by the Chinese?
(I protest) to prevent the forced repatriation of North Korean defectors by the Chinese. (The Chinese government sometimes returns suspected defectors to North Korea, where they face death or imprisonment).
Now that Hu Jintao, the president of China, and President Lee of Korea have talked about this issue, and Hu Jintao said he would consider this issue a humanitarian concern, I hope that from now on China will differentiate North Korean defectors and repatriate only some of them. What I mean by differentiate is that while some of the defectors want to come to South Korea, others defect just for economic reasons like searching for food or getting some money.
For example, some children who cross the border are just searching for something, maybe for their parents. If it is very clear that they did not intend to go to other countries, they will just receive light punishment, like labor or re-education. If they intended to go to South Korea, or some other countries, the punishment is heavy (if they are repatriated to the North).
Kim “Loyalty” Choong-sung
Occupation in North Korea: Pop singer
Escaped North Korea: 2001
Arrived in South Korea: 2004
Path to freedom: Over the Yalu River, into China. Flew to Korea from Vietnam
I am from Ham-heung in North Hamgyeong, a northern province in North Korea.
(For a while,) life in North Korea was okay because I was a pop singer. North Korean pop is like opera. I mean, North Korean pop singers learn a classical music style of singing. This is because in North Korea, 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.”
Groove Korea: Why did you leave?
Kim Choong-sung: In other countries like Canada and South Korea, individuals can own gold, but in North Korea, they can’t. All gold belonged to Kim Jong-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 earn a living). Around that time, someone told me that I would be able to make a profit if I sold gold, though it’s dangerous. So I started selling gold, but got caught.
I got caught around the border between North Korea and China. And one day before I got caught, Kim Jong-il ordered a crackdown on gold sellers. He ordered executions. 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. The room had nothing but a window. It took me 13 hours to break through the window with an iron ring I found.
How did you escape?
I crossed the border with eight other people. Among them, there were three women, a mother and a daughter, and another named Young-hee. Our nerves were on edge, worrying that we might get caught. We climbed mountains, walked through fields, 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. While I was in China, I was living with two other North Korean defectors. A missionary was supporting us financially, 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 my companions. Soon I heard that they had been arrested by the Chinese police after getting into a fight with a Chinese taxi driver. I offered to (take their place in prison), so they were released. I did under the assumption that God would help me.
The police asked the taxi driver if he recognized me, if I was the person who had beaten him. And, of course, he said he didn’t even know me. God helped me, and I was released.
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. Many 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 anymore. I had walked for six months.
There were five shelters for North Korean defectors in Vietnam, where around 460 defectors had been protected. As there became too many, the South Korean government discussed (the situation) with the United Nations and decided to charter two planes and carry the defectors directly from Vietnam to South Korea. The planes took off on July 26, about six months after I arrived in Vietnam.
After I arrived in South Korea, I was interrogated by the South Korean government for three months, and then I got my South Korean citizenship.
What was the biggest difference between North Korea and South Korea?
First, the economy; and also that there is freedom here. In South Korea, people are not arrested even if they criticize the president. In North Korea, if someone calls Kim Jong-un just Kim Jong-un — 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.
I work as a DJ for the Far East Broadcasting Company and I do some musical performances as well. Working as a singer (in North Korea) did put enough food on the table. In South Korea, I can get what my hard work deserves.
If I sing in South Korea 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 to 500,000 won. Somehow I was able to get 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 in South Korea. So they usually do physical labor.
What does the future hold?
Ultimately, I hope the North Korean government collapses. Since I’m a missionary, I might go somewhere else, like Africa, after North Korea opens up. 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. I haven’t talked to him since the arrest. All I’ve heard so far is that he was arrested. I sent to my family about $20,000, telling them to try to get him out of jail with that money. But it seems impossible. So I can’t stop protesting. I should speak up more.
What keeps you motivated?
I’m (protesting) to raise awareness. I’m not trying to hide. It could be more dangerous, but it could be less dangerous, too. It’s a bit of a gamble. Whether in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. 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.
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 lives mean nothing. North Korea is a country only for 1 percent 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 people in political prisoner camps in North Korea, including my brother. The subtle difference coming from your pen might kill or save a person.
Luc Forsyth is an Asia-based photojournalist. To see more of his work go to www.lucforsyth.com or follow him on twitter @LucForsyth.