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Interviews : Kim Kwang-jin

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In September 2003, Kim Kwang-jin and his family rushed to an airport in Southeast Asia to fly to freedom in Seoul, South Korea. Months earlier, Kim lived a privileged life working for the government’s overseas banking operations in Singapore. Then Kim fell out of favor after he was suspected of leaking information about the regime to foreign nationals. Before being summoned back to North Korea face severe punishment, Kim made the decision to defect with his family.

During his banking career, Kim helped earn millions of dollars for what he calls North Korea's "Royal Court Economy," i.e., the enterprises and often illegal schemes that financially supported the country’s totalitarian dictatorship.

Since defecting, Kim Kwang-jin helped expose the North Korean government’s underhanded financial practices. He has also become an advocate for North Korean freedom and human rights. Kim currently works at the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul and is a columnist for Radio Free Asia. 

While working in Singapore, I had some trouble in my business so I reported it to my bosses in Pyongyang. I traveled to Pyongyang to find a solution to that problem. Several of my bosses told me that South Korean, Japanese, and American intelligence were very active in Singapore, and very important information was being leaked from our representative office.

I took that as a signal that I would be in big trouble. So I traveled back to Singapore very quickly, and talked to my wife. I told her that this is the signal that I was in trouble. I asked her to follow me. I told her of my decision to defect from North Korea, and she accepted that. So the next day we decided to leave Singapore and defect to Seoul.

We went to the South Korean embassy, and at that time, my bosses told me that it had been reported to Kim Jong Il. So I took it as a very serious problem, and I also sensed that they pointed a finger at me as the guy who leaked this information.

I decided to defect, and it did not take too much time for me to come to Seoul.

[Kim Jong Il (1941 – 2011) succeeded his father and led North Korea from 1994 until his death in 2011.]

I was very critical of the North Korean regime and was blamed in many cases of talking with foreigners about North Korea and its system. Not the leaders of course, but indirectly I spoke ill of the North Korean system. I thought that these kinds of accusations were the problem.

Ever since I arrived in Seoul, I have been working for the [Institute for National Security Strategy]. It was formerly the Security Policy Research Institute and to this day I am involved in matters of national security. The place that I work for is run by the [South] Korean government. It is a policy institute that looks into North Korea and national security matters.

I am doing many other external activities. I am a columnist at Radio Free Asia. There is a program (corner) called “Kim Kwang-jin’s story of Daedong-gang”. In that corner, we provide programs that help explain North Korea via North Korean humor and slang and it is also used to educate North Korean people [by providing them] outside information. 

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 Kim Kwang-jin

Kim Kwang-jin: Defecting from North Korea “I took that as a signal that I would be in big trouble.” Kim Kwang-jin: What is Freedom? “Freedom in North Korea simply does not exist.” Kim Kwang-jin: Background Kim Kwang-jin discusses life as a North Korean banker. More + Kim Kwang-jin: Financing a Dictatorship Kim Kwang-jin explains how the regime uses foreign insurance money to sustain itself. Kim Kwang-jin: Kim Jong Un “He purged and killed his uncle.” Kim Kwang-jin: Human Dignity “North Korea is a place where individual existence, individual values, individual dignity are ignored” Kim Kwang-jin: The Outside World “The North Korean regime tells their people that North Korea is the best.” Kim Kwang-jin: Breaking Information Barriers Kim Kwang-jin discusses how information is seeping into North Korea. Kim Kwang-jin: The Kim Dynasty “The Kims are the absolute gods of the regime.” Kim Kwang-jin: International Support “Help rescue North Korean defectors.” Kim Kwang-jin: Markets “Through markets, people’s values and thoughts change.”