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Interviews : Park Sang Hak

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Interviewed June 2010

Park Sang Hak is the chairman of Fighters for a Free North Korea, which uses balloons to send leaflets, DVDs, transistor radios and USB flash drives from South Korea into North Korea. Because the North Korean government tightly controls information within the country, the materials deliver valuable information about the outside world and serve to undermine the propaganda the North Korean government uses to keep itself in power. Park is the son of a former North Korean spy who defected to South Korea with his family at his father’s urging. Following the family’s defection, an uncle in North Korea was beaten to death in retaliation. Park met with President Bush in September 2008. 

I never thought about coming to South Korea when I was younger. It was not my own decision to come here. My father brought me and my entire family to South Korea. He worked for a spy agency that specifically targeted South Korea, the same agency that dispatched Kim Hyun Yee to explode the Korean Air plane several years ago. My father would come to Seoul from Japan, China, Hong Kong, Macau, and from several other cities in the region. He would come to South Korea to engage in intelligence business. In 1997 my father was part of an incident in South Korea that, if discovered by North Korea, would have sent my entire family to a concentration camp. Because of this risk we decided to escape from North Korea. So in 1997 I took my mother, brothers, and my sisters and we swam across the Yalu River and escaped into China. From there my father guided us on how to travel to South Korea. So essentially it was his idea to bring us to South Korea, and not my family’s.

Before we escaped, I was a student at Kim Chaek University where I was majoring in the IT related field. And after that I worked at the Kim Seong Il Youth Alliance. I was very lucky to escape North Korea with my whole family; my parents, my brother, and my sisters. There are other defectors, and the majority of the defectors escape from North Korea alone. The North Korean people want to join the freedom movement but they do not do so out of fear that they may jeopardize the safety of their relatives and family in North Korea. I was the son of an officer of the worker’s party so I belonged to a privileged class. I came from a high-class background in North Korea. I feel ashamed because of my situation when I compare myself to the other defectors of North Korea because they have escaped from North Korea just to survive. So I think that my case is very unique.

When I came here to South Korea I enrolled at Seoul National University and I was able to study different political theories. I was able to compare the difference between the North Korean system and the free democratic system of South Korea. I also restudied Kim Jeong Il and Kim Il Seong and I studied the South Korean presidents such as Lee Seung Man and Park Chung Hee. Even though I did have some knowledge about South Korea when I was in North Korea, the things that I learnt about North Korea were horrible and made me realize that the regime created by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jeong Il were bad systems. I could have lived a comfortable life as an intellectual in South Korea as a researcher at the Mobile Institute but I felt some responsibility.

As an intellectual I have the responsibility to be part of this movement and I think that it is my fate or destiny to be part of these activities. Overall, the main reason why I engaged in these activities was because I learned to be angry at the North Korean system. After we came to South Korea in April of 2003, we learned what happened to our relatives who were left back in North Korea. Our uncle was beaten to death by the security police and the three cousins we had, since their parents were killed, they had nowhere to go, and nowhere to turn to so they became gochebi [North Korean child-beggars.] And we don’t know whether they floated out to China or if they just died on the streets. So the entire family was guilty by association as judged by the North Korea regime. Learning that my father’s defection caused these murders left me feeling very angry. 

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 Park Sang Hak

Park Sang Hak: Personal Background Describes his family’s decision to leave North Korea and the terrible consequences for family left behind. Park Sang Hak: Kim Jong Il Speaking before Kim Jeong Il’s death, outlines the reasons he and other defectors believe the regime must end and why reform of the regime is not possible. Park Sang Hak: Spreading Information Explaining his organization’s attempts to get information to people inside North Korea and the North Korean government’s response.