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.
I think freedom is discovery and enjoying the sense of self-existence. I think that the freedom to discover yourself and to be able to develop yourself based on your unique features, these elements are, I think, the most important in freedom.
Freedom is a right that every human being is born with, but because you cannot live in this world by yourself and because you are connected with other people, in the realm of society, I think with freedom also comes responsibility. The true meaning behind freedom would be to discover and develop yourself without doing harm to others.
Freedom in North Korea simply does not exist. Even if it does, it would be North Korean-style “freedom,” something defined by the authorities.
So everything in North Korea is about expressing [devotion] to the great leader, to the party and to the nation.
And there is no such thing as individual self in North Korea. So if someone wants to talk about freedom in North Korea, it would all be related to the group, the country and the great leader.
Every form of government will probably claim they help people realize freedom but based on the kind of government structures and forms that we have experienced so far, I think the kind of government that accepts and guarantees and has respect for human diversity is the most rational government. And in that sense, democratic government and government that allows for multiple political parties within a system are the most rational.
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.”