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Interviews : Kim Seung-chul

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Kim Seung-chul is the founder of North Korea Reform Radio and a passionate advocate for freedom of information. Kim grew up in North Korea where all media is completely controlled by the regime. Desperate for alternative sources of information, he would listen to illegal foreign radio broadcasts targeted at North Koreans. As a result of his exposure to independent media, Kim started questioning his country’s totalitarian system.

Trained as a civil engineer, Kim was selected to work on an international construction project in Siberia. He was amazed at how people in Russia’s most isolated region still had access to basic necessities that were unavailable to many in North Korea. Kim decided to escape and start a new life in South Korea. Once there, he launched shortwave radio programming that targets North Korea’s elite who Kim believes will lead the country’s liberalization. Remembering his own experiences with foreign radio, Kim made it his mission to deliver alternative sources of information to his people and inspire change. As such, North Korea Reform Radio delivers news and programming on leadership, reform, and liberalization that offers elites different perspectives on North Korean society and political philosophy. 

I was taught that North Korea and the United States are enemies. Ever since the Sherman Ship entered near the water around Pyongyang, North Korea has considered the United States its enemy.

[In 1866, a U.S. merchant ship, the S.S. General Sherman, was attacked and sunk near Pyongyang after it entered the Taedong River without permission and refused to leave. The ship was attempting to establish trading relations with Korea’s isolationist kingdom.]

The ideology that focused solely on Kim Il Sung as [North Korea’s] supreme, historical figure started around 1968 and 1969. It was at that point that he was [presented as] the only figure to have accomplished anything throughout North Korean history.

[Kim Il Sung (1912 – 1994) was the founder and leader of the North Korean state from 1948 until his death in 1994.]

I was the first generation to receive this type of indoctrination. Prior to this, if you look at my elder brother’s textbooks, you would find descriptions of North Korea’s historical heroes, but that was no longer the case with my textbooks.

From middle school to college, we learned about other countries. Because it was a unilateral teaching, there was no conclusion we could reach based on comparison so our concept or understanding of the United States was abstract and vague. Of course South Korea and the United States were always depicted in a negative way within North Korean schools.

But I always had questions about these countries and about capitalism. We were told that capitalism was about the brutal principle of survival of the fittest. This was very abstract education as you can see. So I would often ask myself, “What does capitalism actually look like? In a capitalist country, how do the rich people and the socially exploited people lead their lives?”

Back then, I believed that countries like South Korea would use torture, harassment, and violence. You would also find that people had to work very hard, day and night just to survive.
Once I graduated from college, I started studying Japanese on my own. I would read books written in Japanese. It was then that I learned how capitalism brings about economic development and my perceptions changed.

When magazines reach North Korea, the authorities censor articles that publish South Korean news, but not all articles are caught. I was perusing a technology magazine written in Japanese. I remember reading that in 1988, South Korea’s Hyundai Construction won the bidding for overseas construction that amounted to 1.9 billion US dollars.
I was shocked at this. I kept thinking to myself, “If one private company can accomplish this much, how prosperous could South Korea be?”

In the 1980s, I read about the democratic movement and struggles taking place in South Korea. I was actually able to see video clips of South Korea because North Korea was reporting on the democratic struggles of the South.

We were able to see what South Korean cities and universities looked like. We could see the clothes that university students and demonstrators wore. That also shocked me a great deal because they were wearing very nice clothes. Through all of these experiences, my thoughts and perceptions were changing.

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 Seung-chul

Kim Seung-chul: Indoctrination “I was taught that North Korea and the United States are enemies.” Kim Seung-chul: Changes in North Korean Society “They know that something is wrong with North Korea.” Kim Seung-chul: North Korea Reform Radio Operating the alternative radio network for North Koreans. More + Kim Seung-chul: What to Know about North Korea “North Korea is a place that does not respect human beings and treats them like robots.” Kim Seung-chul: Why I Became an Activist “I realized how precious human life is; not just my own but the lives of other people.” Kim Seung-chul: Breaking Information Barriers “North Korean elites can lead and initiate change in North Korea.” Kim Seung-chul: Democratic Movements Drawing inspiration from democracy movements around the world. Kim Seung-chul: Background Kim Seung-chul discusses life before defection. Kim Seung-chul: Winning Over Elites in North Korea “My personal goal is to develop future leaders in North Korea.” Kim Seung-chul: What is Freedom? Kim Seung-chul shares his definition of freedom. Kim Seung-chul: International Support Kim Seung-chul discusses the complex international relationships involved in the Korean peninsula.