A former member of North Korea’s political elite recently shared his thoughts on the Kim Jong Un regime, human rights, and the future of North Korea at an event held last month by PSCORE, an NGO based in Seoul.
People for Successful COrean Reunification (PSCORE) was founded in 2006 with three main objectives: to advocate for an end to human rights abuses in North Korea, to empower North Korean defectors, and to ultimately support reunification of the Korean peninsula. PSCORE received UN consultative status in 2012 and its activities include street campaigns, lectures, and educational programs for defector students. The organization also rescues North Korean defectors living in China and helps them resettle in South Korea.
Historically, the vast majority of North Korean defectors were impoverished citizens from Hamgyong Province, located near the border. In 2010, however, a more diverse range of North Korean residents began to defect including diplomats, soldiers and academics. The number of defections has been recovering from last year after declining in 2011, when Kim Jong Un came to power. These recent trends in defections, wherein Pyongyang’s so-called “elite” are relinquishing their social status at great risk, indicates a growing and widening discontent with the oppressive regime.
Mr. Song offered a rare glimpse into the realities of living in Pyongyang. The talk, given in Korean and simultaneously translated into English, attracted Korean and foreign audience members, filling up the conference room in which it was held. Photos and video were prohibited in order to protect Mr. Song’s identity and that of his family members, who still remain in Pyongyang.
Mr. Song was born into wealth and status in Pyongyang in the 1980s. He graduated from a prestigious university and served in the Korean People’s Army for three years, where he was responsible for the army’s operational and logistical needs, before defecting to South Korea in 2014. He is currently studying for a Master’s degree in political science.
Before delving into his memories of Pyongyang, Mr. Song had the audience keep in mind that differences in experiences according to social ranking, region, age and generation are immense in North Korea and his account does not widely reflect the experiences of the general population.
The North Korean elite, Mr. Song noted, live in comparable comfort, driving around in luxury imported cars and purchasing designer brand goods, while enjoying imported beers and delicacies. Mr. Song recalled the Haedanghwa Multipurpose Complex in Pyongyang, a place so expensive that he had only ever seen foreign tourists look around before promptly exiting the building. “Yet, the Pyongyang elite don’t even bat an eyelid,” he recounted. “For an average lunch, they spend hundreds of US dollars just on liquor. For a feast, they spend thousands.”
Interestingly, Mr. Song noted that the elite possess considerable reserves of US dollars. “They want to have a currency that can be used elsewhere, in case they suddenly decide to defect,” he explained.
Mr. Song himself grew up watching popular Disney films and playing video games like Legend of Zelda and Super Mario. Mr. Song’s Nintendo 64 games console was one of only three in all of Pyongyang. Such items are strictly contraband in North Korea and can only be obtained while abroad. In addition, Mr. Song had a private tutor and studied Russian, English and Japanese as well as the piano from a young age. As an adolescent, he frequented the bowling alley, waterpark and shooting range. He also learned how to drive from an early age.
Mr. Song lived relatively comfortably throughout the great famine of the 1990s, when approximately three million of his countrymen died of hunger due to the regime’s policy failures. He was unaware of conditions outside Pyongyang at the time, and was never taught to care. “There were countless people hungry and malnourished, but when I was young, I didn’t know anything about the circumstances of my privilege,” he lamented.
How can such disparity exist? Mr. Song reemphasized that North Koreans are segregated by a rigid ranking system and that dictates all aspects of life accordingly. Furthermore, the regime deliberately stifles the free exchange of information and ideas. North Koreans have neither free information nor freedom of movement. Only the top one percent receive passports for international travel, while ordinary citizens must receive permission even to visit a neighboring province. Under such circumstances, the vast majority of North Koreans have no way of knowing the truth.
Why did Mr. Song defect? The Kim regime, according to Mr. Song, favors the elite in exchange for their complicity and unconditional support for the dictatorship. Had he quietly remained in Pyongyang, Mr. Song believes that he would have lived lavishly as a high-ranking government official.
Even so, Mr. Song explained that he valued freedom more than his wealth and status. “It might be hard to understand why liberty and human rights are valuable because most people, including those of you here, have enjoyed it since you were born,” he remarked. “As an analogy, we do not think about the air around us. We breathe it but rarely think about it. But what happens when there’s no air to breathe? Then we realize its true importance.”
By 2009, Mr. Song, who had lost many peers to government purges, was thoroughly disillusioned with the regime and desperately hoped that no one would succeed the then ailing Kim Jong Il. Hopes were dashed, however, when Kim Jong Un emerged and began rapidly consolidating power in 2011. Finally, when Jang Sung Taek and his associates were brutally executed in 2013, Mr. Song made up his mind. He defected in 2014, completing a perilous forty-day journey through China to leave it all behind. He declined to comment on the details of his transit.
When Mr. Song escaped three years ago, reunification seemed to be far from the regime’s worries. The focus was on its nuclear weapons program, as it had been for the last decade. He explained that North Korea’s obsession with nuclear weapons dates back to the Iraq War in 2003. Kim Jong Il was apparently shocked that the US would dare overthrow Saddam Hussein and feared that he could meet a similar fate without the proper deterrent. Kim Jong Un has squarely inherited this philosophy.
Beyond nuclear weapons, Mr. Song also warned of North Korea’s hacking capabilities, which could include a new cyberweapon based on the Stuxnet malware. Stuxnet is a computer worm that can infiltrate and sabotage industrial nuclear centrifuges. Allegedly, the US unsuccessfully deployed the worm against North Korea in 2009 and 2010. Mr. Song recalled that development was already underway when he left and that he suspects it has already been completed.
The future of North Korea looks grim by all of Mr. Song’s accounts. Yet, Mr. Song did allude to one possible solution, namely the dissemination of information. He surmised that if the North Korean people learn about a better life outside, the regime will surely collapse. To this end, NGOs and media activists have a pivotal role to play.
Now safe in South Korea, Mr. Song is guaranteed the rights and freedom he sought. However, he remains filled with distress for his family, friends and fellow citizens who still remain in North Korea, as well as with anger toward the Kim regime. In his closing remarks, Mr. Song entreated the audience to find sympathy for his countrymen and help them experience the same rights that he has. “They are humans just like us. I hope that the international community and the people here will take action,” he concluded.