I AM A RECENT DEFECTOR FROM NORTH KOREA, JOINED BY MOVEMENTS.ORG & LIBERTY IN NORTH KOREA (LINK)… ASK ME ANYTHING!
On February 19, LiNK and Movements.org co-hosted a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” (AMA), providing a platform for a recent defector from North Korea to respond in real time to various questions posted on a thread by Reddit users (through an interpreter). We purposefully timed this to take place shortly after North Korea’s nuclear test and Kim Jong-il’s birthday, so we could shift the focus back to the people and allow a broad audience to learn about the dynamism of the North Korean people directly from someone who had escaped the country not so long ago.
The thread peaked at the #6 spot on the front page of Reddit, drawing 11,444 up votes and 2,678 comments. It was also reported on by the Global Post, Al Jazeera, SBS (Australia), RFA, and even translated into German!
Special thanks to Movements.org and everyone who participated for making this happen.
HERE ARE A FEW OF THE RAPID-FIRE Q&A’S WITH SANG-HYUN (PSEUDONYM):
Daily Life in North Korea
Q: Hello and I hope you are well. I am curious about what job you had in North Korea? How was a typical day in your life? What worries and hopes did you have? Thank you very much for doing this.
A: I worked in an office. I mostly worried about how to make money… apart from that, I would go on dates, or go to play table tennis.. haha.
Q: What were the movies like in North Korea? Were you blown away by the hollywood movies when you first saw one?
A: I didn’t really watch North Korean movies. The stories are so obvious. The first Hollywood movie I watched in North Korea was True Lies, I saw it around year 2000 or 1999. It was really fun! I also watched Titanic. But I don’t really remember it… It was a long time ago. I think it was fun too.
Q: What would you do for fun while growing up? Did you have any hobbies?
A: My hobby was playing football (soccer). And table tennis. And swimming – in the swimming pool and in the sea. I’m not that quick though. haha…
Q: What are your views on ip tambae? Do you smoke, or did you ever smoke while you lived there? What are the penalties if you are caught smoking?
A: It’s not illegal to smoke in North Korea. I smoked in North Korea. Men who don’t smoke in North Korea are viewed strangely… it’s maybe only 1% of the country. I quit after I came to South Korea though haha.
Q: What type of music is listened to most often? Was it surprising when you first heard kpop or any type of new genre?
A: People listen to North Korean music the most. People also listen to South Korean music (illegally), and Chinese and Russian music (some of which is illegal). Yes, it was surprising to listen to other kinds of music for the first time, because there was no ideology and it was so human. It was very fun!
Q: While living in DPRK, how did you begin to think/learn that maybe things “weren’t all that great” as the propaganda made them out to be?
A: Personally, I watched South Korean movies illegally and learned a lot from that.
Q: What did your daily meal consist of when you were in North Korea? I have a friend who graduated from Korean Studies and she said in North Korea not everything is bad. What do you think are the good, the positive sides of North Korea which you hope will last on or could even be adapted in case of reunification? Do you already know what you want to do/work on now?
A: I had rice and stew (Korean jjigae), kimchi, soybean paste (doenjang). I might have had two jjigaes, different ones on different days. But the worse off can’t eat white rice.
I don’t really miss anything from North Korea. I can’t think of anything I’d want to preserve in the case of reunification to be honest… Things are better here. I don’t know what I want to do yet…
Propaganda and Access to Information
Q: Thank you Sang-Hyun! You’re incredibly brave! My question to you is, inside North Korea, has the control the regime holds over its people changed much since Kim Jong-Ils death, and is there any hope for progress under Kim Jong-Un? One other question, is accurate information about the rest of the world becoming more available, legally or otherwise, and do people living there predominantly believe North Korea is the best country, or do they say it because they feel they have to? I’m sorry if any of that is offensive or inconsiderate.
A: As far as I know it is the same as under Kim Jong-il. The method may have changed a bit, and the propaganda being spread to the people has evolved, but basically things have remained the same. Objective information about the outside world is becoming more available, through illegal means. People don’t think North Korea is the best country in the world. Propaganda is not important any more, people are driven by profit.
Q: I heard that the state teaches its people that your leaders have god-like qualities. Is that overall believed by the general population?
A: In the old days people believed that, and older people still largely believe that. But the younger generation does not believe that. It’s like how I’ve noticed that the younger generation in the outside world have different beliefs or culture to the older generation too.
Q: How do you think the average North Korean would react upon getting out of the DPRK and being exposed to the rest of the world (for example, reading a non-state news website)? What do you think the best way is to introduce the outside world to North Koreans who are able to get out?
A: I’m not sure if there is a particular method… I think it’s the best if people can see a lot for themselves. The internet is great for that. Also having conversations with other people.
Q: I’ve heard of Anti-American propaganda in North Korea, are there Anti-Commonwealth nations propaganda, like Canada, UK, Australia?
A: No. The regime only focuses on criticizing the US and the South Korean government.
Q: Were you told that other countries were worse off than North Korea? Thanks for your response!
A: They used to teach people that other people that other countries were worse off than North Korea, but now they say that our country is poor now but that a better future is coming.
Q: Hey Sang-hyun, I have a question about the education on world affairs. How informed does the government allow you to be on what is going on in the world?
A: There is information that the government allows about the outside the world. For instance they have news about America, but it is all bad stuff. So the government told us about the 9/11 terror attacks on the USA, but it was difficult to believe… They also have programs about famous people from around the world, or some nature documentaries from places like Africa.
Q: When you were in North Korea did you have any impression of what the standard of living was in South Korea or anywhere else in comparison to yours?
A: North Korean people mostly know about China’s economy, because there is most interaction and awareness of that comparison. People think that China is much more developed than North Korea, but people also know that South Korea is even richer than China.
Q: Is it true that every house has a speaker in it that always broadcasts propaganda and can’t be switched off?
A: There aren’t speakers that you can’t turn off in the house, but there are propaganda speakers outside that you can’t turn off.
Q: So now that you can finally be honest about it, what do you really think of Kim Jong-Un?
A: He’s different to Kim Jong-il… It’s hard to say. I don’t know. I don’t care about Kim Jong-un as a person but I’m interested to see what he will do.
Q: How much information used to be broadcast about North Korea’s Nuclear program? Did the government heavily promote it, or call it a great equalizing force or anything else?
A: The regime tells the people that all the other socialist countries collapsed, but we are the only one left which is standing up to the USA. And nuclear weapons are what enables us to do that. That’s what the regime says…
Personally when I was in North Korea I didn’t really think of the nuclear weapons were a threat to the outside world, and it felt like there was some progress in the country, so I felt good about it. Now it feels different though.
Q: Thank you very much for doing this AMA, Sang-hyun, and thank you LiNK and Movements for setting it up!
My question is about tourism in North Korea. Many people who travel there as tourists believe that, by engaging with North Koreans, they are able to humanize foreigners and perhaps help change North Koreans’ minds about them. However, others believe tourism there is wrong because much of the money goes to support an oppressive government. In your opinion, do you think that tourism in North Korea is a positive force or a negative one?
A: I think tourism in North Korea is a positive thing. It means that North Korean people can see and meet foreigners, even if they can’t have a conversation. If that happens a lot then North Korean people’s thinking can change, especially if they can see the difference in the way foreigners live. Tourism and foreigners coming to the country is also in the direction of opening the country up, so I think it is a positive thing.
Food and Economy
Q: How bad has the famine been since the end of the Arduous March in the late 1990s? Have things been getting worse or a little better?
A: Things are a bit better than during the Arduous March. But the level is still not sufficient. The biggest change is in people’s minds.
Q: Thank you for the response. What do you mean by people’s minds?
A: Before the famine, people believed and relied on the state, but then life was very difficult, so people learned that they could only rely on themselves. A lot of the people who only believed in the state died… These days, on the inside people are the same as capitalists.
Q: How do you get a job in North Korea? If you don’t like your job, can you quit and apply for a new one?
A: Officially, you get assigned to a certain job without a choice. That’s how it used to be. But that top-down system doesn’t work. Now, unofficially, you can study for a certain job or industry and make efforts to work in that area, through personal contacts etc. But most people don’t get exactly what they want. If you want to quit then you have to make up a reason, for instance feign illness. You can’t just say you don’t want to do the work any more. Then you can find another job.
Q: Thank you for taking the time to do this. I have two questions. First, how recently did you leave North Korea? We’ve heard a lot about the food shortages. How is food currently distributed/provided to citizens outside of Pyongyang?
A: I left about a year ago. Outside of Pyongyang, the government’s food distribution is very rare. Mostly, people get food from the markets or in rural areas they grow their own food.
North Korean Attitudes and Opinions
Q: I admire and respect your bravery in leaving the DPRK, Sang-Hyun. Is there an “underground” movement of North Koreans that disagree with the NK regime? Is there any chance the people will rebel and defeat the current regime? Why or why not?
A: I don’t know about any underground movement of dissenters. If the repression continues in the same way, then maybe people will rebel. But Kim Jong-un is changing the propaganda in a skillful way – for instance the new concerts in Pyongyang – and making a difference from his father’s image so the people may be tricked again. You can also see a difference in the propaganda about re-defectors.
Q: Are there any examples of “pushing back” from the North Korean people against the regime you’ve witnessed, even if they’re on the small scale?
A: Yes. I have seen people arguing back against the police.
Q: Care to elaborate on this? How did the police respond when people argued back? It’s different from case to case, but most of the time the punishment would get worse, the police beat people or arrest them. Sometimes poorer people or older people will argue or complain back against the police if the police try to stop them selling things illegally for instance. Because these people are just trying to make a living. But the police will not give up and they will confiscate those goods. People with money though don’t need to complain, they just bribe officials to do what they want.
Q: Do you think a good proportion of the citizens in North Korea would want to defect? If not, what is holding them back?
A: People who have relatively good lives there don’t want to come. It’s hard to know how many people want to defect because you can’t really talk about that when you’re in the country. I think there’s a lot of people who want to leave but can’t because they don’t know how to.
Q: Is the average NK citizen aware of the brutality in the prison camps?
A: People just think that you die if you go in there. That’s the most scary thing in North Korea. That’s why people can’t speak up, because they’re worried about being sent there. My father always told me from a young age to be careful what you say, because if you make a mistake then you get sent to that kind of place. I also experienced a couple of times where families disappeared from my community. If people move away in a normal way then you say goodbye and you see them leaving in the daytime, but these people just disappeared overnight. I later found out it was because the father had criticized Kim Jong-il to one of his friends, and that had been reported, so the whole family were taken away.
Q: First of all, how are you? Has there been any grumblings from the citizens about the regime? Is the number of people who oppose the regime growing, or are they unaware or too scared to speak out against?
A: There are grumblings from people about the regime. Yes, you could say that there are more people opposed to the regime. Yes, people are scared to speak out against the regime.
Q: Do you think reunification can happen? A lot of political observers see North Korea’s fall as inevitable. Do you think that might happen? Does the average North Korean genuinely want reunification, or is that a desire brought upon by the regime’s constant propaganda?
A: I think that the dictatorial regime will collapse, but I still think it will be difficult to join North and South Korea.
Q: If there was a reunification of North and South Korea at some point in the future, would you return? Why / why not?
A: It depends on how the reunification happens. I would visit if I could of course. If reunification happens I think I would still live in the south. But if North Korea opens up another way without reunifying then maybe I would go back to help the development of the country.
Q: What can we do to help the people of North Korea? I live in the US, am Swiss, and many people here do not know about the brutal conditions in North Korea. What can an average person do to try to effect change? Lobby or protest? Thanks for your time, and I am very happy you are safe and well!
A: I think that government-to-government aid is likely to all be taken by the North Korean government. Therefore I prefer support for private organizations or NGOs, where the support can go more directly to the North Korean people.
Life After North Korea and Beyond
Q: How did you go about leaving North Korea?
A: Someone helped me leave the country illegally.
Q: How do you feel after betraying your country? Are you happy after you left North Korea? What’s your opinion on women in South Korea compared to North Korea.
A: Personally, I don’t believe I betrayed the country. I am very happy to be here. The North has many beautiful women but not as much as the South.
Q: What would you say is the biggest adjustment you have had too make so far since moving out of North Korea?
A: Getting used to IT. For instance using the internet, signing up on websites etc. Cell phones are easy though.
Q: What is the most surprising thing you learned once you defected and were out of North Korea?
A: Compared to North Korea, other countries are very developed. I was surprised by IT and the internet the most.
Q: Is there anything that you discovered after leaving North Korea that wasn’t to your liking? Anything new that you feel negative towards?
A: I can’t really think of anything in particular… I guess I’ve found that South Korean people drink too much! There’s more drunk people here than in North Korea. I was very surprised about women drinking and smoking a lot here too… I didn’t really like that. haha
Q: Have you heard about South Korean girl bands like SNSD? What do you think of them? What about Gangam Style?
A: I heard about SNSD since coming to South Korea. I don’t really like them. I prefer Sister. I’m not interested in Gangnam Style.
Q: What country would you like to visit most?
Q: Who taught you English?
A: I am studying English. But someone is translating for me now!
Q: Would you rather fight 100 duck sized horses or 1 horse sized duck?
[Translator explained the duck/horse Reddit question].
… I’d fight the horse-sized duck.