Asia-Pacific, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Human Rights

Q&A: "I Saw People Dying Before My Eyes"

Zoltán Dujisin interviews KIM YOUNG SEONG, a North Korean defector.

SEOUL, Jul 14 2009 (IPS) - Very little is known about North Korean society considering the country is so isolated the outside world. Those who flee the country refrain from speaking out, fearing persecution against them or their families. IPS’s Zoltán Dujisin caught up with Kim Young Seong, a North Korean defector, who gave a rare insight into North Korean society. The following are extracts from the interview.

IPS: Why did you leave North Korea? And how? Kim Young Seong: I left in 1997 through the Chinese border, after I was sent to do forced labour at a mine for 2 years. Crossing it was very risky and difficult. There were many soldiers and I risked severe punishment, but a friend who knew the situation in the border region helped me. I stayed in China and Russia for some years and then I settled in South Korea, where I’ve been for seven years now.

IPS: What were conditions like at the mine? KYS: Many people were sent there from Pyongyang as punishment. We were very close, once a week we would drink and talk and I heard many terrible stories. Compared to many others, whose families were also sent to the coal mines and who, like in much of the country, died of starvation, I was very fortunate. My family was one of the few allowed to stay in Pyongyang, because my crime was considered to be rather light.

IPS: How much did people know about the famine? KYS: People knew about it. When I lived in Pyongyang I heard that many people died of starvation in other cities, but it was something I hadn’t personally seen till then. But when I was sent to the coal mine, it was my first time outside Pyongyang, and I saw people dying before my eyes. I will never forget a little girl whom I saw at train station. I was eating the food my mother had prepared for me. I noticed a little girl in a primary school uniform staring at me. She was very hungry and was looking at the food I was eating. But I couldn’t part with my own food or I would go hungry. Those were different times and I was another person. I now have my own daughter. I would like to apologise to her if I get the chance. I still clearly remember her face.

IPS: Can North Koreans travel inside the country and see the situation for themselves? KYS: No, they can’t. They need permission from authorities. It is very difficult to get permission for private business, but there is always the possibility to bribe someone or use your contacts in the authorities. People did not know much about what happened outside their own region, but compared to the past more people are traveling now and there is a greater flow of information, though often illegally.

IPS: How heavily militarized is North Korea? KYS: It’s very heavily militarized. You can feel the military presence everywhere. Military service usually starts when you’re 17, and it lasts for more than 10 years. In this period you are allowed to see your family just once or twice. When I was in the country, people found this acceptable, and took pride in being a part of the army and competed for positions within it. Without your military service you are seen as unaccomplished man.

IPS: Can North Koreans study abroad? KYS: Possibilities are very limited, and the decision is not up to the individual, but the government, which decides who goes where and when.

IPS: People are learning English and there is more interest in the Western world. Doesn’t the state mind that? KYS: Whether North Korea likes it or not, it is becoming more dependent on the outside world and society is becoming more open to it. Authorities know this. In the past, for instance, scientific information was coming from Russia. Russian was an important language, but now engineers, businessmen and scientists are learning English and Chinese very intensively.

IPS: Are there any interactions with Foreigners? KYS: The majority of foreigners are diplomats, businessman, and people from international organizations or non-governmental organizations, and they all live in Pyongyang. There was no contact with foreigners in the past; it was forbidden even to talk to them. If you were a foreigner in the street trying to ask for directions, the citizen could not answer the question, otherwise he would be questioned by security agents: "what did you tell the foreigner?" And there is always someone following each foreigner, a guide who monitors his every behavior. I’ve been a guide myself and I had to report every day on the activities of the foreigner I was escorting.

IPS: Are there internal forces of change at work in North Korea? KYS: My own opinion on several subjects has changed several times since I got to South Korea, because now I lack consistent and fresh information about it. But from newspapers and recent defectors, I hear the ruling authorities have no will to reform politically or economically. But society is changing; there are more markets outside state control, the lifestyle is also changing. People are buying DVD players, clothes, music, computers, and they are more dependent on markets than ever before. People knew nothing of the outside world before the 1990s famine. But that is changing. They now realise how poor they are and feel the need for change. But there is no way for them to express their social discontent, which has grown in recent years.

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