‘We would never think of eating for pleasure,’ North Korea defector admits

September 17, 2017

Thomas Maresca



SEOUL — When Kim Hak Min lived in North Korea, every home prominently displayed a photo of the isolated nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung, as well as his son and successor, Kim Jong Il.

Now that he runs his own iPhone repair shop in this bustling South Korean capital, the 30-year-old defector has hung a very different portrait on the wall: Apple icon Steve Jobs.

Hak Min was given a biography of Jobs when he escaped to South Korea in 2013, and the late Apple founder became a hero to him — not only for his business success but also for a message of individual rights that is light years away from the repressive North Korean dictatorship under Kim Il Sung’s grandson, Kim Jong Un.

“When they brainwash students in North Korea they say: ‘We can read your words, actions and thoughts,’” he said. “If you have bad thoughts about the Kim family they will know. But in the book, Jobs said: Do not let others’ thoughts rule over you. Do what you want. Be yourself.”

For Hak Min, the dream is to finish his engineering studies in Seoul and make his way to California’s Silicon Valley to invent world-changing products of his own.

He’s a far cry from the images that usually make their way out of the tightly controlled nation just 40 miles away: expressionless North Koreans lockstepping in military parades and extravagantly choreographed public performances.

In fact, many refugees who escaped to Seoul describe a North Korea that is being transformed, if very slowly, by greater access to the outside world.

Hak Min, who grew up in Onsong, a town near the Chinese border, learned how to repair electronics in a black market economy that emerged in North Korea in the years after massive economic hardship and famine of the 1990s. It was images of the world outside of North Korea, picked up on TV signals from China and bootleg videotapes and DVDs that sparked his desire to escape.

“I was shocked with how rich the South Koreans were,” Hak Min said. “Their culture, their language — everything intrigued me.”

The risks of watching these shows were very real. Hak Min was caught with DVDs and sentenced to prison, where he and his friends were tortured. He eventually raised money to pay a black market broker to help him get across the border to China, and from there made his way to Thailand and eventually South Korea.

As tensions rise with President Trump over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, many analysts believe information — rather than military force — can be the key to bring about change in North Korean society from the inside..

While the regime’s nuclear and military threat must be taken seriously, an overly confrontational approach by Trump plays into dictator Kim’s hands, said Sokeel Park, country director of Liberty in North Korea, an organization that helps rescue and resettle refugees.

“North Korea is strong on traditional security stuff,” Park said. “That’s what they want us to focus on, that’s what they bring the attention to, and then we play right into it. Whereas they’re very weak on their soft underbelly of economy, information, society, culture. For not a lot of money, we could do a lot better on various forms of interaction, engagement, and information access programs.”

Kim Seung Chul, a defector who came to South Korea in 1994, also believes that information is key to changing his homeland. He founded North Korea Reform Radio in 2007, which currently broadcasts two hours a day of news, information and entertainment over shortwave frequencies. He also occasionally uses remote-controlled balloons to drop leaflets and other information into the country.

“The goal is enlightenment,” he said. “We’re trying to reach North Koreans who are isolated, who don’t have anywhere to listen to real stories or real news, in order to trigger a spark, to give them a vision, something that will bring positive action.”

Seung Chul estimates that at least 10% of North Korea’s 25 million people have access to foreign media regularly. He and his colleagues also try to target higher-ranking members of the North Korean regime who travel abroad with messages and shows they hope will prove inspirational.

Their tactics can be surprisingly creative. One program Seung Chul has turned to is House of Cards, hoping that its main character will offer some pointers in the dark arts of political maneuvering.

“In order for high officials to act wisely against Kim, they will have to act like Frank Underwood,” Seung Chul said. “The revolution shouldn’t be like the ones in Iraq or Libya. It should be led by those intellectual people to make slight changes that lead to a bigger change. The strategic goal is to make North Korea change by itself.”

In the meantime, making the transition to life in South Korea can be daunting for the 30,000 North Koreans who have settled here.

Hong Ye Lim, 19, a university student who volunteers to teach English to North Korean refugees at an alternative high school in Seoul, said the Northerners were different than she had expected.

“We have a stereotype of North Koreans as being tough, rigid, sturdy,” she said. “But after I met them I saw that they were sensitive and emotional too, that they had already lived through so much.”

Many North Koreans are told to change their accents and hide where they came from. Hak Min said he found the confidence to be himself in Steve Jobs. “Reading his biography, that’s when I decided I will not hide myself again. That’s when I started telling people that I’m a North Korean defector. I said I can’t be like anyone else, so I’ll be myself.”

“We constantly ask North Korean refugees and defectors: ‘What do we need to do?’” said Park of the refugee resettlement group. “They always say to put more information in. They’re so consistent on that.”

Such exposure to the outside world motivated Yoon Ok, 25, to flee North Korea. She grew up in another border town across the river from China.

Yoon Ok, whose full name is being withheld because of concerns her outspokenness will jeopardize the safety of family still in North Korea, recalls one particular Lunar New Year’s Day. She noticed fireworks and lights blazing in China, while her town received electricity only for a few hours a night.

“I was wondering — why is that country so bright, with so many lights during the day,” she said. “It’s just a border crossing. Why is it so much brighter than North Korea?”

She also watched television signals from China, where she would sometimes see South Korean soap operas dubbed in Chinese. She didn’t understand the language, but the images made it clear to her that South Korea was a place where she wanted to go.

“Their lifestyle was very carefree, freewheeling,” she said. “If they want to do something, they can do something. if they want to travel somewhere, they travel. I could see that life is much freer than in North Korea.”

She started finding her place through a kitchen job in a Seoul restaurant. She fell in love with cooking and has begun taking classes with a goal of starting her own food truck and perhaps one day bringing it to North Korea.

“In North Korea, we would never think of eating for pleasure,” she said. “Eating was for survival. If I have an opportunity to go back or if Korea unifies as one nation, I want to cook for the people in North Korea who couldn’t enjoy eating. I hope they can have bigger dreams of their own someday.”






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