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Interviews : Kang Chol Hwan

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Interviewed June 2010

Kang Chol-Hwan escaped from North Korea in 1992 and has dedicated his life to bringing attention to the horrifying conditions in North Korea.

When Kang was 9 years old, the North Korean government accused his grandfather of treason and sent the family to one of its most notorious concentration camps, Yodok. Kang lived in the camp for 10 years, surviving on meager corn rations along with rats and earthworms. He and his family were forced to work in fields and mines and to witness public executions of their fellow prisoners.

Following his release from the camp, Kang bought an illegal radio receiver and began listening secretly to broadcasts from South Korea. These broadcasts allowed Kang to understand the differences between totalitarian societies, like North Korea, and free societies. Kang and a friend escaped North Korea by sneaking across the border to China and went from there to South Korea, where he lives today.

Kang described his experiences in his powerful memoir, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.” President Bush welcomed Kang to the White House in 2005 

There are a group of brokers that bring North Korean refugees into South Korea just like in East Germany. But you need to have money to do this. As of now, in South Korea there are about 20,000 North Korean defectors who are living in South Korea. They are paying these brokers to bring their relatives and friends from North Korea into South Korea.

If you have a lot of money, they would take a plane from China, if you pay less you take a ship, and if you have even less you have to travel by land all the way to Vietnam. The amount of money you have determines which of the different methods the brokers use to bring them from North Korea all the way down to South Korea.

Nowadays, since these brokers have been doing this for about 10 years, these brokers have refined and improved their skills and methods. So once you pay for a broker to bring someone from North Korea to come into South Korea, it is understood that they will bring that person. 

North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a country of 23 million people in northeast Asia, ruled by Communist dictator Kim Jong-Un. His deceased predecessors—father, Kim Jong-Il, and grandfather, Kim Il-Sung – respectively retain the titles of “Eternal President” and “The Great Leader.”

The Korean War began in 1950, when Kim Il-Sung, backed by the Soviet Union and China, attacked South Korea. The conflict ended in a cease-fire rather than a peace treaty, and the border between the two Koreas remains tense and heavily militarized.

Kim Il-Sung employed harsh tactics to consolidate his power and propagated an extreme personality cult that has been continued by his successors. A blend of communist doctrine, state terror, xenophobia and hyper-nationalism has given North Korea its unique ideology. Despite some recent openings, North Korea remains largely isolated from the rest of the world.

With the end of Soviet communism and withdrawal of economic support, North Korea’s economy collapsed in the 1990s. A massive famine, aggravated by the regime’s indifference, killed as many as 2 million people between 1994 and 1998. While conditions have improved, even today, North Korea faces problems of malnutrition and insufficient access to food.

Tensions between North and South Korea remain high. In 2010, North Korea sank a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors and attacked a South Korean island, killing four civilians. North Korea has developed and tested nuclear weapons in contravention of several international agreements. The country withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 in order to test ballistic missiles and eventually a nuclear device. Multilateral negotiations have so far failed to constrain North Korea’s arms buildup and nuclear program.

North Korea is among the world’s most repressive states, engaging in widespread and systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, torture, forced abortion, arbitrary detention, and denial of the rights of expression, association, assembly, and religion. The government pervasively regulates all aspects of the lives of its citizens, each of whom is categorized as “core,” “wavering,” or “hostile,” according to the history of his or her family’s relationship with the regime. Access to housing, employment, education, and other social and economic goods depend heavily on these security classifications. The government determines where each citizen will live, and travel within the country is strictly limited.

Emigration is prohibited. Refugees who have escaped to China have frequently been forcibly returned to North Korea where they are imprisoned, subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, and sometimes executed. The government operates a network of forced labor camps for an estimated 120,000 political prisoners. While persons convicted of ordinary crimes serve fixed sentences, those convicted of political crimes are confined indefinitely. Punishment is extended to three generations – the offender’s parents, siblings, and children are also incarcerated, as a way to pressure North Koreans to conform. Political offenders are often denied food, clothing, and medical care, and many die in prison.

Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report classifies North Korea as “not free” and as one of nine nations whose lack of political rights and civil liberties are considered the “worst of the worst.”


More from Kang Chol Hwan

Kang Chol Hwan: Refugee Brokers How North Koreans are escaping to freedom. Kang Chol Hwan: Spreading the Truth Breaking through North Korea’s censorship. Kang Chol Hwan: Meeting President Bush Meeting President Bush. More + Kang Chol Hwan: North Korea's Leaders Speaking before the death of Kim Jeong Il about the Leader and his Father, Kim Sung Il. Kang Chol Hwan: Class Disparity On the suffering of ordinary North Koreans and the emergence of a wealthy privileged class. Kang Chol Hwan: Media Control Describing the efforts of the North Korean government to tightly control information in the country and the covert efforts of North Koreans to access news from the outside.