Ever since I left North Korea in December 2009, I’ve encountered many caring people around the world who often ask me what practical ways there are to help North Koreans. Whenever I receive this kind of question I feel I am witnessing a positive phenomenon taking place, and it convinces me that the focus is evening out from one centered entirely around an erratic, extreme, and threatening system to one that now notices the people once under it, now freed.
It’s true that in the mainstream media, which has the tendency to pick up more sensational aspects, people in North Korea have often been forgotten. Why not when, like some hermetic celebrity, there is something harmlessly peculiar, perhaps even a mite ludicrous, to be found in what is otherwise inaccessible and, not infrequently, menacing: the bizarre hairstyle of leader Kim Jong-un and the evolving fashions of his wife, Ri Sol-ju, or guest appearances in the country by unlikely mediator Dennis Rodman.
In a sense, all these images, along with the usual ones about nukes and the like, are contributing to an eclectic curio of stereotypes in peoples’ minds regarding North Korea. There is nothing wrong, inherently, with this: we who are privileged to be free can freely choose to categorize things with which we may not be as familiar. However, when stereotypes transmogrify and become mentally ingrained as “facts” at a certain point, and when these “facts” cement into the cornerstones and pillars upon which policies are built, it is this structured mindset that prevents the ceaseless impasse between us and North Korea from being overcome and an effective solution to issues from being reached.
In November of this year, I flew to Nova Scotia for the annual Halifax International Security Forum where I had the chance to speak to defense, military, and intelligence officials from South Korea, Canada, Japan, and the United States on North Korean nuclear issues. Though certainly nothing as frivolous as dictatorial haircuts was touched upon, the discussion I’d had with some of them, as I offered my own perspectives on the matter, largely reaffirmed the prevailing stereotypes I feared still subsumed conversations of this sort. When Japanese delegates presented a paper, which chronicled the years in which North Korea has conducted its nuclear and missile provocations from 1993 until today, all delegates expressed due concern over whether the North Korean long range missile, Musudan, could reach Guam at any point in the near future. Their solution was to impose stronger sanctions on Pyongyang. A few days later, the Security Council unanimously passed a resolution that was hailed as the “toughest ever” sanctions adopted at the highest apparatus in the UN here in New York. I don’t think I’d be alone in foreseeing some future “even tougher than the toughest ever” resolution proposed and pushed through again when North Korea conducts yet another round of nuclear tests.
While I admire the international community’s united stance against the North Korean regime’s age-old string of provocations and continuing assaults on basic human rights, I’m also concerned that the more balanced perspective readily seen on the individual level has not yet reached any meaningful level in the echelons of government and legislation. Consequently, there remains a sense of complacency over the kind of methods that have been and continue to be employed by countries in response to North Korea. Guesstimating the strike range of missiles almost seems pointless as pressured North Korean scientists are working hard on improving its missile technology even at this very moment. As long as North Korea regards nuclear weapons as its survival sword, attempts at denuclearization will likely continue ringing hollow.
I know this firsthand, because of “state smuggling.” Even in a state that supposedly regulates and controls it, activities like smuggling can and are associated with what it publicly considers to be a tainted term, a revolting oxymoron. I started running my own business in North Korea when I was 12 to make a few illegal bucks to sustain my family after my father passed away — but I was far from the only one. During 2006 and 2009, there was frequent “mass smuggling” conducted by the state directly. Imagine: a mobile crane is placed in the middle of the Yalu River, which separates North Korea and China. From the Chinese side about 25 or more trucks are approaching the river and unloading some unidentifiable cargo, which is in turn being loaded by the cranes on the trucks, which are standing by ready to receive them on the North Korean side. They don’t even bother going through any customs process!
This kind of practice makes me raise an eyebrow to talks of sanctions, and whether they’d be at all effective if one of the world’s most economically powerful countries, China, is choosing to ignore them. Could China choose to comply one day? Maybe, but they’ve no significant incentive for doing so. I would thus find it none too far-fetched to believe that the dictator in his high castle is having a good wicked laugh at these rounds and rounds of sanctions.
Aside from reunification of the Korean peninsula, if denuclearization in North Korea is to be the central goal, how can one possibly achieve it? What could bring the North Korean regime to its knees and to the negotiating table? Some people (including myself) agree that there does need to be growing pressure from the likes of the Security Council and continuing interest and attention given to the people through global activism and bodies of research and reports such as that of the UN-published Commission of Inquiry report on the abuses of human rights, published in 2014. But discussing these issues on the global stage is itself not enough, for the ears of one pivotal audience will never be in the discussion room or sitting on the panel of speakers if things continue as they are. That audience, of course, is the 24 million North Korean citizens still in the country.
North Korean society has survived until today primarily by terrorizing its people through a virulent, interlocking system of politics, the military, and a sophisticated personality cult system. Of them, the personality cult is the main monolith that has upheld the system until now. The education one receives beginning in kindergarten and lasting all throughout one’s life is harps upon the glorification of its great leaders, from the founding under Kim Il-sung to his doppelganger of a grandson, the presently reigning Kim Jong-un. I consider myself a rational person, but at one point, I truly believed that even the globe itself revolved around our country, with North Korea as its axis — and was surprised years later when I learned my country was also known elsewhere as “the axis of evil.” Information from the outside that undermines the regime and the cult to any small degree has the potential to chisel ruinous cracks in it.
How can we be sure that the North Korean regime, which scoffs at sanctions left and right, is terror-stricken by the threat of outside information leaking in? One needs only observe its regular practice of crackdowns and system of retribution. Government inspectors conduct house searches like it’s some kind of game of hide-and-seek. First, they disconnect the power from an entire neighborhood or certain targeted homes without notice. Those found watching unauthorized DVDs — anything from the West, South Korea, or on any subject deemed capitalistic or decadent — are likely to find themselves in hot water, because once the power is out, there is almost no way to take out a DVD inside its player. Once inspectors enter a home, they connect the power again to check the contents on the DVD. I remember how close I came to getting caught when I was watching one of my favorite South Korean shows, a melodrama called “Winter Sonata” — I barely avoided a trip to the detention center by swiftly wrapping up all DVDs in a plastic bag and hiding it under a pile of ashes in our fireplace when an inspector visited our home.
Even though the government harshly punishes those who are caught watching such DVDs — putting them in jail, executing those charged with copying and distributing them — the thirst for truth has not been quenched, and is in fact increasing, regardless of what it has cost a great many. Nowadays, USBs and SD cards are growing in popularity too among North Koreans as they’re easier to smuggle into the country and conceal from authorities.
Resolving the North Korean issue will require a consistent and coherent approach. Addressing problems on the global stage is essential but won’t itself ever be enough to meet such goals as denuclearization and improved human rights conditions in my fatherland. Along with continuously striving for the effective implementation of international sanctions, information dissemination into the country should be emphasized. If history is any judge, North Korea’s true change is not likely to come about from the overthrow or dramatic change of heart and decree of one man in power, but will rather more organically spring up from the roots of society — 24 million North Korean people, cognizant of and eager for the liberty they and all humans deserve. What the North Korean regime is truly scared of is not any sort of a carrot-or-stick policy, but its own people, awakened and roused.
Seongmin Lee is a North Korean defector who escaped from his home country in December 2009, arriving in South Korea in 2010. Prior to escaping, he conducted his own underground business in smuggling over the North Korean–Chinese border and engaged in various state institutions such as the provincial People’s Security Bureau and the provincial Worker’s Party. He testified about the North Korean human rights situation at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2012. Following this, he worked as a student journalist at the Ministry of Unification in Seoul, South Korea, for one year and went on to serve as an assistant to Barry Devolin, former Assistant Deputy Speaker on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Seongmin is now studying at Columbia University in New York City where he is majoring in economics and political science.