In­for­ma­tion is the seed of hope for iso­lated North Korea

Sunday Tribune - - WORLD - Shan­non Ebrahim

THE two North Korean de­fec­tors I met in Seoul this week had the same mes­sage: ac­cess to banned in­for­ma­tion about the out­side world made them ques­tion Kim Jong-un’s regime and es­cape the coun­try.

We take it for granted North Kore­ans un­der­stand some­thing about how the out­side world op­er­ates – that there are places called restau­rants where you can choose from a va­ri­ety of foods to eat, walk down the street with­out an army of spies watch­ing your ev­ery move, and you are free to say what­ever and meet who­ever you choose.

But most North Kore­ans, even aca­demics and in­tel­lec­tu­als, don’t have that ba­sic un­der­stand­ing of what lies be­yond the hermit king­dom.

They have been raised to be­lieve they live in a par­adise where the Kim dy­nasty looks af­ter their ev­ery need and en­sures the sur­vival of their “great sys­tem”.

Blind loy­alty is all they know as they don’t have any­thing to com­pare their sys­tem to.

I had as­sumed univer­sity pro­fes­sors had more of a glimpse into the life be­yond North Korea, but it turns out most don’t. This is where Pro­fes­sor Kim He­ung-kwang pro­vided a rare glimpse of the in­for­ma­tion no man’s land North Kore­ans find them­selves in.

Pro­fes­sor Kim was a IT pro­fes­sor for 20 years in Py­ongyang and highly re­garded in so­ci­ety. But when he man­aged to il­le­gally tune in to banned ra­dio sta­tions such as Ra­dio Free Asia and Voice of Amer­ica, he re­alised his per­cep­tion of the out­side world was mis­guided as a re­sult of the state’s pro­pa­ganda.

His wife would be pet­ri­fied of him get­ting caught as reg­u­larly a ve­hi­cle would pass called a “voice catcher” which could de­tect whether any res­i­dent was lis­ten­ing to il­le­gal in­for­ma­tion.

There were also of­ten ran­dom in­spec­tions where of­fi­cials would raid neigh­bour­hood houses and use an op­er­at­ing sys­tem for a PC or mo­bile phone that could in­spect what in­for­ma­tion had been looked at by go­ing through the log pile.

The Kim dy­nasty in North Korea has sur­vived for as long as it has by com­pletely con­trol­ling in­for­ma­tion and ac­cess to it.

Those who ut­ter crit­i­cal re­marks are sent to prison labour camps along with three gen­er­a­tions of their fam­ily for the rest of their lives. There is al­most no chance of es­cape and the pu­n­ish­ment and forced labour are bar­baric.

An IT ex­pert, Pro­fes­sor Kim be­came part of the cen­sor­ship team in 2002 re­spon­si­ble for en­sur­ing cit­i­zens were not watch­ing il­le­gal ma­te­rial. One day he got hold of a banned DVD about the out­side world and lent it to a friend.

The friend got caught watch­ing it and was se­verely pun­ished and sent to a forced labour camp.

Kim was sus­pended as a pro­fes­sor for a year and sent to do tor­tur­ous labour on a farm for a year. When he came out, he was stig­ma­tised and scorned by col­leagues, and he de­cided to es­cape the coun­try by il­le­gally cross­ing the Tu­min River into China.

He had to pay four months’ salary to a bro­ker who bribed the bor­der guards to al­low him to es­cape dur­ing the change of shift.

Many escaping along the same route are shot dead in the wa­ter.

Prof Kim joined more than 30 000 North Korean de­fec­tors who are liv­ing in South Korea, and has set up an or­gan­i­sa­tion for North Korean in­tel­lec­tu­als – doc­tors, en­gi­neers, teach­ers and pro­fes­sors.

His main work now is to cus­tomise in­for­ma­tion for the North Korean au­di­ence about the out­side world, and put it on USB sticks that are sent into North Korea through a se­cret net­work.

So des­per­ate is the regime to pre­vent such in­for­ma­tion be­ing dis­sem­i­nated that the leader, Kim Jong-un, has passed a death sen­tence on Kim, and North Korean spies are hunt­ing for him in Seoul. It is no won­der I met him in such a se­cre­tive lo­ca­tion.

Kim has had to de­vise highly tech­ni­cal means by which to con­ceal the in­for­ma­tion on the USBS, turn­ing them into “stealth USBS” so that state of­fi­cials are un­able to de­ci­pher the con­tents.

North Korean IT ex­perts have bro­ken his en­cryp­tion meth­ods and he is con­tin­u­ously find­ing new ways to hide the in­for­ma­tion.

Kim be­lieves that if more North Kore­ans could have ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion about the out­side world and the rights they were be­ing de­nied, they would de­fect or start an or­ganic re­sis­tance move­ment against the regime.

But the road to lib­er­a­tion for North Korea is fraught with al­most in­sur­mount­able odds. Dis­si­dents have no support in terms of arms from out­side pow­ers, and if ever enough peo­ple were to demon­strate on the streets, they would be slaugh­tered like sheep.

If ever a gen­uine strug­gle for free­dom emerges in North Korea, it prob­a­bly would not have the out­side support African lib­er­a­tion move­ments en­joyed.

The few peo­ple who know the truth about their so­ci­ety, and want to work from within for change, are merely a hand­ful of Davids against a mon­strous and seem­ingly all-pow­er­ful Go­liath.

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