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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. 

Freedom means having the right to do what you want without creating problems for other people and society. So with freedom comes responsibility.

I think people are born with the right to freedom, but because your freedom can be infringed upon by the outside world and by society I think that you have to have some kind of system where you can keep this concept in check to be able to respect others.

Freedom, as I learned about it in North Korea, had symbolic meaning because it meant struggling against oppression and exploitation and it was a purely ideological definition. But here in South Korea, I feel that freedom is about human existence and it also has an individual aspect to it.

I want to emphasize the importance of unique individual characteristics and differences among people when talking about freedom. I was inspired by Erich Fromm’s book titled, To Have or to Be? What communism and socialism try to do is disregard the fact that all human beings are different in their own unique way.

[Erich Fromm (1900 – 1980) was a German social psychologist, sociologist, and philosopher.]

Socialism and communism try to impress upon you that everybody needs to be the same and that is the way to achieve freedom and material wealth. But capitalism shows respect for each person; however, the differences amongst people sometimes create conflict but are also the driving force for advancement.

So in that sense, I could say that freedom is about respecting each individual and their uniqueness. 

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.”

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