The Future of North Korea: A Defector's Perspective

Harvard International Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Future of North Korea: A Defector's Perspective


As the world watched footage of Kim Jong-il's funeral, many were asking whether the emotions North Koreans displayed on camera were at all genuine. In your experience, what proportion of North Koreans are genuine devotees of the leadership?

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In 2011, when Kim Jong-il died, most of the footage released by the regime showed dozens of North Koreans crying. But the regime can choose what they show to the world.

In 1994, Kim Il-sung died. Maybe this is because I was young, but I felt that many people were sad and sincerely crying. When Kim Jong-il died, the atmosphere was very different. Even when I was in North Korea, many people showed their disaffection with the regime. In North Korea, up to 3 million people have died from starvation, and many more have gone to jail or have been publicly executed. So there is almost no one who has not lost a family member. Through these actions the regime broke the trust of the people, and when I was still there people had started thinking about change. They were afraid to discuss it in public, but privately they did discuss it. The oppression continued, and the popularity and credibility of the regime plummeted.

So I think many people, after Kim Jong-il died, did not cry sincerely; I think they were forced. I talked to a source in North Korea the day after his death, and he informed me that many North Koreans did not start crying until the day after they heard of Kim's death. If their feelings had been sincere, then they would have started crying straight away. And just by looking very closely at the news footage of the events, you can tell that although some people seemed to be crying, their expressions do not reflect grief and pain.

Let's talk about your organization, Now Action and Unity for Human Rights (NAUH). Briefly, what is its mission and what does it do?

NAUH is an organization working to promote the rights of North Koreans. NAUH is composed particularly of students from North and South Korea and from oversees. Our focus is to induce and prepare for change inside North Korea.

To do this, we want to touch the feelings of the North Korean people. Many people in the North have a very good impression of the regime because the state media has appealed to their emotions. Every Saturday we hold a demonstration in downtown Seoul to help inform Korean society about the atrocities taking place in North Korea as well as our activities. We have recently signed a contract with Radio Free Asia to broadcast our message to North Korea. Every Thursday we have our own 20-minute program where the students talk about a variety of issues, from their schoolwork to democracy and freedom.

Since last year we've also started looking at ways to help defecting women, who are the most vulnerable victims of human trafficking.

What is it that you would really like the world to know about the situation in North Korea today?

That nothing's changed after Kim Jong-il's death. There are still public concentration camps, there are still prisons, there are still public executions, they are still shooting at the defectors, and there is still starvation.

After Kim Jong-il, it seems that all countries are hoping for a peaceful succession. I was shocked to see this language being used because this is a perpetuation of the same regime that is torturing people. Nothing has changed in terms of human rights violations.

We must respect the North Korean people and their rights, so our response to Kim's death must be based on the principle of respect for the opinions and the human rights of those same people.

Do you see any possibility of a liberalization of North Korean society under the leadership of Kim Jong-un?

There are many speculations, but I think they are just speculations. …

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