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Themes Why I Became a Dissident » Kang Chol-hwan

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Interviewed June 2010 and April 2014

Kang Chol-Hwan escaped from North Korea in 1992 and has dedicated his life to bringing attention to the horrifying conditions in North Korea.

When Kang was 9 years old, the North Korean government accused his grandfather of treason and sent the family to one of its most notorious concentration camps, Yodok. Kang lived in the camp for 10 years, surviving on meager corn rations along with rats and earthworms. He and his family were forced to work in fields and mines and to witness public executions of their fellow prisoners.

Following his release from the camp, Kang bought an illegal radio receiver and began listening secretly to broadcasts from South Korea. These broadcasts allowed Kang to understand the differences between totalitarian societies, like North Korea, and free societies. Kang and a friend escaped North Korea by sneaking across the border to China and went from there to South Korea, where he lives today.

Kang described his experiences in his powerful memoir, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.” President Bush welcomed Kang to the White House in 2005 .

I was a very young man [19] at that time, and part of this group of people, my friends and I, that were against the regime. We had access to outside information and sang foreign songs, all of which was strictly prohibited in North Korea.

I knew that the things I involved myself in could really put my family at risk. Once you are arrested, you are labeled as a criminal and everybody is sent back to prison camp all over again.

So I thought to myself, this is not a matter to discuss with my family. I couldn’t discuss the matter. Even if I did talk about it, they would not agree with my escape.

The intelligence authorities were really after us. Everything was proceeding urgently, so I had to flee as soon as possible.

I think my chances of successfully crossing the border to South Korea were near zero percent, but a miracle happened for me. I escaped with a friend by the name of Ahn Hyuk. It was the two of us fleeing together. The steepest challenge to overcome in the escape process was getting into China, because I had to take a train into the border area.

All of North Korea’s trains were monitored by the authorities, which is why getting on a train and going through that process was the steepest challenge for me. I had to bribe the police, because I needed permission to travel.

After doing that, I went to the border city of Chanbai [China], near the city of Hyesan [North Korea]. That was where I stayed temporarily.

I had to make a lot of deals with the North Korean military. I had to bribe them with beer and other drinks.

They informed me that the shift change for the guards would come around 2 am, so around that time, we crossed the river and it went quite well.

After we reached China, the North Korean authorities came looking for us. They searched for us for about a week after we reached China.

We hid in China for about half a year, and then we went to Dalian where we were helped by ethnic Koreans living in China. [Dalian is a Chinese port city, situated across the Yellow Sea from Korea.]

They put us on an illegal boat going to South Korea, and that’s how I arrived here. 

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 on this theme from Kang Chol-hwan

Kang Chol-hwan: Escaping to Freedom Kang Chol Hwan describes how he made his way to China and South Korea. Kang Chol-hwan: Class Disparity On the suffering of ordinary North Koreans and the emergence of a wealthy privileged class. Kang Chol-hwan: Media Control Describing the efforts of the North Korean government to tightly control information in the country and the covert efforts of North Koreans to access news from the outside.

Other videos from Kang Chol-hwan

Kang Chol-hwan: The Gulags Kang Chol Hwan describes North Korea’s system of political prison camps. Kang Chol-hwan: Child Labor “Children are tortured even more than the adults.” Kang Chol-hwan: The Aquariums of Pyongyang “My connection with the outside world was completely severed.” More + Kang Chol-hwan: What is Freedom Kang Chol-hwan discusses his concept of freedom. Kang Chol-hwan: Life Before the Gulag “We were part of the upper class.” More +