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In the Nuclear Standoff, Ordinary North Koreans Disappear

An advocate for North Korean refugees outlines an alternative approach to political change and regional peace in Korea.

North Korean schoolchildren. (Photo: Stephan/ Flickr)

North Korean schoolchildren. (Photo: Stephan/ Flickr)

Sokeel Park is the director of research and strategy for Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), an organization that rescues North Korean refugees without cost or conditions and helps them on their journey to South Korea. LiNK also has resettlement programs that help North Korean refugees adjust to life in a new country.

Since its inception, LiNK has rescued 733 refugees.

Refugees take a huge risk by trying to escape North Korea. If they make it to China, they are still in danger of being arrested and forcibly repatriated to their native country, where they could face severe punishments, including torture, forced abortions, forced labor, spending the rest of their lives in a political prison camp, or even death. Even if they avoid Chinese law enforcement, without sufficient resources they are vulnerable to sex trafficking and other illicit industries.

LiNK features empowerment programs that allow North Korean refugees to offer insight into North Korea, as well as media and other campaigns that educate the global community about the conditions in the country and the potential for ordinary North Koreans to drive change in their country. The organization exists to empower the North Korean people.

Park narrated a LiNK documentary called the Jangmadang Generation that shares the perspectives, experiences, and hopes of the urban youth in North Korea with the international community. In the documentary, eight young North Korean defectors offer amazing stories of resilience, creativity, and quiet rebellion in the country. It shows how teenage smugglers, guerilla marketing, covert entrepreneurs, and illegal foreign media have given a new generation North Koreans a glimpse into the outside world.

Park worked in the South Korean government and the United Nations before he joined LiNK. His desire to work for the North Korean people brought him to the organization.

Park and LiNK have put a human face on the North Korean defector community and the North Korean people themselves. LiNK’s work has helped dispelled widely held myths about a monolithic North Korean society made up of brainwashed individuals following a cult-like leadership, while highlighting the tenacity and agency of a people who are changing their society in the face of severe oppression and cruelty.

What is your response to the bellicose language being used by both U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un?

We confront North Korea on the territory of Pyongyang’s choosing [when we take the militaristic route], where they are most comfortable and confident — the military standoff, mutual threat, pressure, isolation and embargo. By focusing so much on traditional security, we play to the regime’s strengths and reinforce their ideologies and siege mentality.

It is much cheaper and easier to make progress in the long term if we choose a territory where we are much stronger, namely in the people-centered dimensions of information, culture, and market economics. There are so many under-utilized opportunities there to help the North Korean people, build internal pressure on the Pyongyang government, and in the long-term work towards a North Korea that is open, normalized, and a net contributor instead of major detractor to human progress.

Not just because of the humanitarian imperative, but also the important role they play in sending money, resources, and information back to their home communities after they successfully resettle, accelerating change and opening their homeland. This is why we work with North Koreans who have escaped from the country — not just because of the humanitarian imperative, but also the important role they play in sending money, resources, and information back to their home communities after they successfully resettle, accelerating change and opening their homeland.

What made you want to join the Liberty in North Korea?

North Korea maintains an extreme version of 20th century authoritarianism and totalitarianism. The first time I met ordinary North Koreans (not North Korean diplomats) was in New York when I was doing a graduation internship in the United Nation’s headquarters. This is a project of humanity-scale and historical importance. Over the years I’ve been able to meet and get to know a lot of people from North Korea as friends. At the end of the day, there is no other project I would rather be working on.

How life-changing has it been for you to work with North Korean refugees?

It’s amazing and it’s a huge privilege to be able to do this as a full-time job. I’ve learned so much about life, culture and human psychology. Just working with North Korean people has challenged some of my fundamental assumptions. It’s very stimulating and very gratifying as well.

However, sometimes you have to find your own gratification — because in the bigger picture, North Korea is still North Korea. We’re dealing with individual people, but in the bigger picture, we’re dealing with a historical development. It wouldn’t be possible to create a state like North Korea in the 21st century, so when the North Korean government goes, that will be it. Humanity will never see a system that closed or regressive again. People may point to the Islamic State as a counterargument, but I think that is a different kind of animal.

I think this is one of the biggest problems facing humanity today. It is a difficult issue to work on and there are not many people working on it.

North Korea was bombed heavily by the United States during the Korean War. How much of that destruction is now used as propaganda by the North Korean regime to act like they are protecting their citizens from the outside world?

That is a huge element of North Korean propaganda. History is important, but what is equally important is what actually happened and the stories that you tell about it.

Different countries have reacted to similar situations in different ways. Germany was heavily bombed by the United States and the United Kingdom during World War II, but the stories Germans tell about that bombing is quite different than the stories that are told in North Korea. Their stores aren’t filled with anti-British [sentiment] or anti-Americanism. Vietnam also was horrifically bombed by the United States, but the stories they tell about the war are different as well. There is resentment of course, but there is also a pretty good relationship with Vietnam and the United States today. So history doesn’t determine the future relationships between societies.

The North Korean government fabricates history. The story the government tells about the Korean War is that it was the United States that attacked first, even though that story has been discredited by the archives of the Soviet Union and China. It’s very clear that Kim Il-Sung made the decision to try to re-unify the peninsula by force. The number of people who were actually alive to know the truth is dwindling.

That’s why when the U.S. and South Korea conduct military drills and the North Korean government says these are rehearsals for invasions, it makes more sense to the North Korean people than to the outside world because of the way the North Korean government has fabricated history over the years. You need the evil monsters of the outside world like Japan and the United States, along with the historical narrative that the Korean race is always being attacked by outside forces, to get people to be willing to be loyal to a strong leadership.

There are reports that more outside sources of information are getting inside North Korea. Has this changed the way North Koreans view their government?

It’s very hard to know. This is true even in relatively free countries. Look at how surprised political analysts have been with the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, which is the most widely surveyed country in the world. North Korea is the least surveyed population in the world, so it is very hard to know average political views. I think we have to practice a little bit of intellectual humility and recognize when we don’t know certain things.

The best that we can say, based on talking to North Korean refugees, is that there is clearly disenchantment. People are risking their lives to escape from the system and people are discussing issues inside the country. It’s not black and white disenchantment for people inside North Korea. You might disagree with the government on economic policies, but the nuclear weapons policy might make sense to you because of ethno-nationalism, and you might buy into this idea that North Korea faces an existential threat from the outside world.

People outside of North Korea have this simplistic view that North Koreans either disagree with everything the North Korean government stands for or they agree with them on everything. But when you are on the inside of any system or political culture, there are many more shades of grey.

Is it a culture shock for North Korean refugees to see how their country is portrayed by the outside world, or is it not a surprise given their experiences in North Korea?

The level of interest internationally about North Korea surprises some people. In South Korea, there is a lack of awareness and understanding of North Korea. South Korea and North Korea have become so different by this point that some young South Koreans in particular are not that interested in North Korea. North Korean refugees are sometimes surprised when South Koreans don’t know the basics about their country.

There also are singular narratives about North Korea that treat the country as a monolithic creature without any nuance. Refugees are often surprised by this characterization as well.

Would you like to see a more nuanced view of North Korean citizenry in the media?

Part of our organization’s strategy is to bring more news and nuance about the North Korean people, instead of just focusing on the North Korean government and its nuclear weapons policy. We want people to be aware of the difficulties North Korean citizens face, but we also want to show the ways the society is changing and the sources of hope in the country.

Do you worry about the press focusing too much on the bellicose nature of the North Korean regime and forgetting about the suffering the people in that country are enduring, in terms of starvation or being sentenced to life in brutal concentration camps?

It’s absolutely inevitable that there is going to be a lot of focus on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. They have threatened to use nuclear weapons against the United States of America. That is a story that has got to be told. That kind of rhetoric is not coming from other countries in the world. But our organization wants to balance out this coverage with a more productive focus on the sources of hope and progress that we are seeing internally in North Korea.

Can you talk about the dynastic nature of the North Korean regime and about the different classes of citizens in the country?

That is one of the reasons that North Korea exists as it does still today. Kim Il-Sung came to power at a very early age, which meant he was in power for about a half a century (1945-1994). By the time he died, the only person to take over was his son.

The cult of personality had become so important around Kim Il-Sung that the only way to pass it over to someone else was to put that cult of personality along a family line. So in 1994 the only mechanism that was available was to pass the leadership on to Kim Jong-Il, and then to Kim Jong-Un after Kim Jong-II died.

That does constitute an important factor, because if you look at the changes in other countries that were formerly communist countries, you get big changes in policies when you have changes in leadership. For instance, after Stalin and Mao died, the next leaders had an opportunity to change things and recognize mistakes that were made because their legitimacy wasn’t tied to the former leadership. That opportunity never was available in North Korea.

Why has the military in North Korea allowed the Kim regime to stay in power? What are the incentives for the military to allow this regime to continue?

It’s very hard for the military to launch a rebellion because the level of internal security and surveillance is very high. The military leadership also doesn’t have a reason to overthrow the system because they have privileged positions in the country.

North and South Korea are also competing states, and there is a fear among the North Korean elite that if North Korea collapses, South Korea will come and take over everything. So if you’re a North Korean general and you can live out your life as a North Korean general, that would be better for your family than if you instigated a rebellion that brought about the collapse of the North Korean system and the absorption by South Korea.

What is a North Korean general going to do in a country that has been re-unified by the South Korean government? They might go on trial. They might be lynched. The best outcome would be for them to be able to become a teacher or taxi driver or something like that. They would basically lose all their power networks.

You talked about the military being privileged members of North Korean society. Isn’t there also a class-based system in North Korea where certain citizens have much better lives than others?

It’s a pretty complex system. If you want to understand it, the best thing to do is read the research paper, Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System by Robert Collins.

Basically, it’s a system where citizens are classified according to their supposed political loyalty that goes back to their ancestral loyalty to Kim-Il Sung. The system is used to discriminate about what kind of jobs you can get or whether you can serve in the military. It controls a lot of things, but this system is not well known in the outside world.

If this discrimination were based on skin color, it would look like apartheid South Africa — maybe even worse than South Africa — and there would be a massive international outcry about it.

But this is North Koreans discriminating against other North Koreans. So it looks and feels very different than apartheid South Africa, even though fundamentally it includes the same amount of human rights violations.

So if someone’s ancestors collaborated with the Japanese or fought for the South Koreans during the Korean War, then that person is being discriminated against today based on the political loyalties of their ancestors?

Yes. At this point, people have to operate outside the system and work in the markets. In some ways the system is still important, but people increasingly having to rely on business activities outside the system.

What is the main reason behind the forced repatriation of North Korean refugees by the Chinese government?

The Chinese government has an agreement with the North Korean government to return people who have illegally crossed the border. If they unilaterally abdicate this agreement that will basically burn their relationship with Kim Jong-Un, which is something they don’t want to do. They also don’t want to encourage more North Korean refugees to come into China because that could be a problem for them. But even if they left the channel open for North Koreans to go to South Korea, some people would do that, while others would want to go back and forth between North Korea and China because their families are still living in North Korea. In some ways, it’s similar to the arguments being made about Mexican immigrants coming to the United States.

Can international pressure be applied to China to make them change this policy?

Not really. This is a core interest of the Chinese government and it’s not a core interest of the United States or South Korean government.

What tactics can international groups and/or people use to weaken the North Korean government and strengthen dissident movements inside and outside the country?

The fundamental problem here is North Korea is the most closed and repressive country in the world. The game is to open it up to the outside world, and there are different ways that you can do that. There are certain things you can do above the board with the North Korean government. You can do it with certain forms of economic engagement and you can do it through inviting the North Koreans to learn in the outside world. This is being done, so it is possible.

You can have workshops inside the country with foreigners going in and teaching lessons about different things inside the country, or you can do it under the radar by providing information and ideas to the North Korean people that the North Korean government cannot stop. You can also work with North Korean refugees to accelerate their roles as agents of progress through continuing to send resources and money back to their country.

Broadly, these are the type of tactics that are available to the international community. Increasing the force for change inside the country is a very under-utilized strategy. So much of the focus goes to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. The international community focuses too much on North Korea’s strengths and not its weaknesses.

Is it possible for non-violent action to bring about change in a country as closed as North Korea?

At this point, it doesn’t seem likely. It’s impossible to know for sure. If you look at history, countries are stable until they are not stable. Instability can happen very quickly. But you need certain conditions for people power movements and you need a certain level of organization.

The organization part is very difficult for North Korea compared to other countries. For example, during the days of the German Democratic Republic, the Stasi was an incredibly repressive and brutal police organization. The Stasi would bring someone in and put them in solitary confinement and they might not get to see their families for weeks or even months, but after that they got to go back to their families.

That’s a completely different risk level than North Korea, where if you do something your whole family can get sent to a political prison camp. So in North Korea, it’s so difficult to raise your voice in the first place. Raising your voice is difficult enough, but it’s even harder to sustain it and then build momentum.

Would regime change in North Korea have to involve changing the hearts and minds of the military and security forces over to the side of whatever resistance movement had sprung up to challenge the North Korean regime?

That’s a crucial part of it, but that can happen during a people power movement. For example, during the Arab Spring in Egypt, the crucial change was the Egyptian military withdrawing their support for Mubarak. But that only happened because people started to demand change first. The same thing occurred in East Germany and other places as well. So this doesn’t normally happen first; it’s usually triggered by something.

What is the most productive relationship South Korea, the United States, and Europe can have with North Korea? Can they establish a relationship with the North Korean regime that helps the North Korean people as a whole?

You are not going to see a radical change in government policies. Countries and international institutions are not going to give up on the nuclear or missile issues. However, it is clear there needs to be a more long-term approach to North Korea. Simply kicking the can down the road has not been working.

We need to ask how can we maintain defense and security on these security problems, and how can we reduce those issues; but also how can we accelerate the opening up of North Korea to the outside world. In some ways, those are contradictory strategies, which is one of the reasons this has been so difficult for the international community. But we need to re-formulate the strategy and bring more emphasis to helping North Korea change and open up. Solely focusing on the security aspects is not working.

What are some incremental steps that could be taken by other governments that could make North Korea open up more to the outside world?

There are different things that can be done to increase the informational flows into the country. Radio broadcasting is still really important, but it’s actually pretty limited. Radio seems old fashioned, but North Korea is a country where you don’t have access to the Internet and you don’t have live information from the outside world. Radio is the only source of information that travels across the country in real time and provides unofficial sources of information that doesn’t come from the North Korean government.

One of things we’ve been quietly working on for a while is encouraging getting the BBC services to broadcast to the North Korean people. People also can support North Korean refugees and non-governmental organizations that work on this issue.

We do need role differentiation because there are some things governments can do and there are some things governments can’t do. The latter NGOs, North Korean refugees and North Korean defectors have to do. In addition, broader economic engagement between North and South Korea could be helpful.

Should governments leave foreign aid to NGOs since past foreign aid has been siphoned off to the military instead of being used to help the people?

There is a case for humanitarian aid, but the fundamental problem is not a lack of food in North Korea — it is the North Korean system. It’s not like there was a particularly bad harvest or a bad flood that affected food security; it’s the system itself. Aid is just putting a small Band-Aid on a bigger wound; it’s not solving the fundamental problem.

If you can stop one child from being hungry, there is a value to doing that. But you need to make sure that by providing humanitarian aid you are not prolonging the system or putting off system-level changes. Humanitarian aid should be given based on the level of need and the ability to monitor and evaluate how that aid is being used, because there are other people around the world who need humanitarian aid as well.

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Andy Heintz

Andy Heintz is a freelance writer whose work has been published in Balkan Witness, Secularism is a Women’s Issue, Europe Solidaire, CounterVortex, and Culture Project. He’s working on a book called Dissidents of the International Left.

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