Exchange Student Rebels Look Back

[imText1]In August, 1962, four North Korean students studying in Bulgaria announced in a statement, “The Korean War was a North Korean war of aggression,” and “It is better to read the Bible than the Collected Works of Kim Il Sung.”

The four were immediately taken by North Korean monitors, faced repatriation but barely escaped. Thereafter, they could have acquired Bulgarian citizenship but instead remained stateless. Finally, in 1991, they took South Korean citizenship. Of the four, Lee Sang Jong and Lee Jang Jik recently came to South Korea to participate in a conference held by the National Unification Advisory Council. The Daily NK met them on the 10th.

They were both born in 1936. Lee Jang Jik’s father was a member of the anti-Japanese independence movement, while Lee Sang Jong’s father was a tenant farmer. Thanks to their good family backgrounds, they were nominated as exchange students by their schools. After detailed inspections by the Provincial and the Central Committees of the Party, they were sent to Bulgaria at the age of 21, in 1956.

Back then, North Korea sent a number of students to the USSR and Eastern Bloc countries such as East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. “At that time, Kim Il Sung sent about 2,000 students abroad per year, including 250 students to Bulgaria,” Lee Jang Jik explained. “Eastern Bloc countries also had a policy of accepting North Korean war orphans and university students as their students. I think North Korea wanted to use that policy to train cadres.”

Their less restricted access to information in Sofia allowed them to plan antiestablishment activities. This led to their criticism of North Korea’s propaganda. They said they were only able to put their antiestablishment plan into action because North Korea supported the Stalinist line, while Bulgaria supported Khrushchev.

“The reason we said that we supported Bulgaria’s and Khrushchev’s line was to earn the support of the Bulgarian government,” Lee Sang Jong explained.

“North Korea repatriated its students in the summer of 1959, three years after the start of our studies. They gave us ideological education for a month, and that is when I came to know for certain that North Korea was a controlled society,” Lee Jang Jik said.

Only 80 among the 250 students repatriated to North Korea were allowed to go back to Bulgaria. Only four of them signed up to the statement because, they explained, “North Korea’s control and supervision were huge at the time. The more people participated in the statement, the bigger the risk of getting caught became.”

After the release of the statement, the four of them were caught and were imprisoned in two groups. Lee Sang Jong and Lee Jang Jik succeeded in escaping from the embassy when surveillance grew loose after a month. Four days after their escape, the Bulgarian government notified North Korea that their embassy in Pyongyang would be closed if they could not guarantee freedom to the escaped students.

A month later, embassy staff nevertheless tried to escort the two students back to Pyongyang. However, Lee Sang Jong’s friends from Romania and China, who had been checking the flight to Pyongyang every day, dramatically rescued them. After the incident, official diplomatic relations between North Korea and Bulgaria were severed for eight years.

When asked to tell us about the lives of North Korean overseas diplomats and students today, Lee Jang Jik said in a trembling voice, “I really pity them.”

“It was two years ago,” he explained. “I saw a diplomat who was heading back to North Korea buying flour from a department store. North Korea must be experiencing a bad food shortage. Despite the transport costs, he was taking flour to North Korea.”

Lee Sang Jong said, “North Korea has diplomatic relations with other European countries, too. But they don’t have enough money, so the Bulgarian embassy acts as the ‘headquarters’ and manages North Korean embassies in those European countries.” He added, “There are about four employees in the South Korean embassy, but North Korea has about 25 employees at its Bulgarian embassy. Including their families, it must be about 100.”

About the lives of employees in the embassy, he said, “Judging by the old embassy car, they must be having a difficult time. The embassy is also selling paintings of tigers at university exhibitions.”

“Collecting gifts from the Balkans and sending them home on Kim Il Sung’s birthday is also an important duty for diplomats,” he added. “In early April, a North Korean plane lands in Sofia and transports the stuff back directly.”

Talking about modern exchange student life, Lee Jang Jik said, “When North Korean students have a drink at home, all they do is watch each other. They don’t talk about anything because they don’t trust each other.”

“However, there was an incident when two students having a drink together threw their badges of the Kims (Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il) and swore at them,” he explained.

“After quite a lot of drink, they confessed that they did not believe in North Korean system too. Their biggest dissatisfaction with North Korea was that there is no freedom. They said they themselves were scared to go back.”