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.
My motivation for becoming a human rights, reform, and liberalization activist can be explained in two ways. First, I was motivated out of affection and respect for human beings.
Second, I was motivated based on my determination to do something for my home country and a need to serve its people.
North Korea is a society where people believe that death can happen easily. The regime can kill you if you do something wrong; either by punishment or getting shot to death. Because this mentality is so prevalent, people do not value human life.
After spending about seven or eight years here in South Korea, I realized how precious human life is; not just my own but the lives of other people. Even today, when meeting defectors who have just crossed the border to the South, I know their mentality. They still have a mindset that thinks little of human life.
Regarding my second motivation, when I was working for the [Institute of North Korean Studies], I had chances to interview many defectors, and they would share their stories. One of them shared a story that took place in the area of Sinuiju in the late 1990s. This was during the period where around 3.5 million North Koreans starved to death.
[In the mid-1990s, North Korea experienced mass famine that resulted in an estimated three million deaths.]
One of this person’s colleagues did not come to work at the factory that day so he visited him at his home. Inside, they did not have a rice cooker or even proper dishes. His colleague, this person who did not come to work, had starved to death in his own house. His seven year old daughter was in the house as well, and she was half dead from starvation. They had this small dining, tea table and on the table, there were ten pieces of popcorn in a small cup. When people woke the daughter up and gave her some water, they asked her, “Why did you not eat the remaining popcorn?” She explained that she had wanted to use the popcorn as food to pay tribute to her father’s death.
I had heard many stories about people starving to death, but this particular story really touched my heart.
I thought to myself, “I am so well off here, and I am leading such a stable life.” When my father was alive, things were okay. About ten years after my father’s death, my family became very poor, because I didn’t have the right kind of songbun or social class.
My wish had always been not to be evaluated based on social class and by authorities, but based on my abilities.
[Songbun is a system used by the North Korean regime to classify citizens’ attitudes toward the regime as core, wavering, or hostile. An individual’s songbun status is influenced by his family’s status and helps determine career prospects, housing and even access to food.]
Now that I have these abilities, I knew that I had to do something for North Korea. I told myself that I would do what I could to the best of my abilities. Because my own thoughts and perceptions had changed after defecting, I was determined to awaken North Korea’s elite. In the past I always felt something was wrong, but I didn’t know exactly how and what was necessary to solve those problems.
That is the reason I started broadcasting.
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.”