Information is the seed of hope for isolated North Korea
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.