The Trip that Changed Everything

Co-founder and head researcher of NKnet,
Kim Young Hwan, recently gave a special lecture at Yonsei University on the
nature of his work and the road that led him to it. Kim, originally a communist
supporter and stalwart member of the pro-North Korea faction within South
Korea, changed his beliefs entirely after entering the isolated nation and
witnessing first hand the difficulties residents there face. 

Just ten years after the end of the Korean
War, Kim was born in South Korea, where he later attended Seoul National
University in 1982. While Kim was pursuing his undergraduate degree, President
Chun Doo Hwan came to power, using military control to instill fear into South
Korean citizens.

Kim explained during his lecture that many
people protested this corruption through democracy movements during his college
years. This time period, coinciding with  Kim’s undergraduate studies,
also saw his discovery of the Juche ideology–North Korea’s brand of socialism
that is defined by self-reliance: politically, economically, and

It had always been a desire of Kim’s to
meet North Korean defectors since the 1980s, especially because when he saw
them speak on South Korean television broadcasts, he refused to believe what
they were claiming to be true. He got an even bigger opportunity in 1991–he
received an invitation to visit North Korea.  

Kim told the audience of his most salient
moment while inside the elusive nation. He was in an administrative building,
simply ascending a staircase, when suddenly a guard shouted at him, “Hey! Where
do you think you’re going?!” The guard kept swearing at and reprimanding him
for going up a set of stairs, in front of which there was a distinct absence of
any sign stating, ‘Do not enter,’ or a similar deterrent.

Aside from the realization of the country’s
abject conditions during his trip, Kim became well aware of how residents there
were being treated by the authorities; he knew that the guard mistook him for
an ordinary North Korean resident and treated him accordingly.

“I saw first hand, the human rights
violations that were and still are taking place in North Korea,” Kim said
during the lecture. “The worst part is, these violations are happening even
outside the walls of political prison camps.”

Kim went on to discuss how after seeing how
his fellow countrymen, his “brothers”, were suffering, he resolved to change
the situation. Upon his return to South Korea, he cast off his previous beliefs
and became a dedicated activist for the betterment of conditions in North
Korea, particularly in regard to human rights.

As Kim began speaking about his North
Korean human rights work in China, he said, “Although today’s seminar is
titled, ‘Kim Young Hwan Can Finally Speak’, the truth is, there’s still a lot I
cannot say to you folks.”

Kim mentioned that if he spoke too in depth
about his current work with people in China and North Korea, their identities
could be revealed. He also mentioned that his methods of working with his
affiliates could be discovered, threatening many lives.

While Kim deliberately left this portion of
lecture vague, he did say that he is currently working on a book outlining his
current and past activities in China. Again, he noted, many of the details will
be omitted because of the potential problems that could arise for those
affiliated with the work.

“It brings me painful thoughts as I write this book. It makes me think of the
people who have been sent to political prison camps or have even been executed.
It makes me recall times I have been called a murderer by the Chinese for doing
the work I do,” he concluded.

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