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“Freedom is like a drug”

The following is an adapted excerpt from the chapter, “People-to-People Connections in a Transforming Asia”, by Zach Przystup, from the CALI Press-published book: Experiencing Asia: New Perspectives. Zach shares his encounters with two North Korean defectors and his insights on the importance of information as a means for political reform in North Korea.

South Korea has already undergone one of the most amazing transformations in history. Up until the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was poorer than North Korea. Yet today South Korea is the only country to transition successfully from being a major recipient to a major disburser of development assistance. Known as one of the four Asian tigers, along with Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, South Korea boasts the world’s twelfth largest economy and a vibrant culture with increasing global influence, as exemplified by the moniker “hallyu,” or Korean wave.

Just forty miles north of the bustling, neon-lit metropolis of Seoul, across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), lies the most isolated and repressive regime in the world. North Korea holds 200,000 of its people in brutal and extensive prison camps. It employs a hereditary caste system that controls access to employment, education, health care, housing, and even food based on perceived loyalty to the Kim regime. North Korea threatens global security — and holds its own people hostage — with its nuclear weapons program.

Between the two Koreas, there is a marked absence of exchange. People-to-people interactions are limited to infrequent and heavily monitored North-South family reunions, unsteady communication between government officials, and, on the covert end, intelligence gathering. In North Korea, the exchange of ideas or information through South Korean dramas and music or any other foreign media is punishable by prison or death. The stark contrast between the two Koreas magnifies the tension between them. Indeed, largely because South Korea has achieved so much and has so much to lose, its triumphant transformation is an impediment to reunification.

We boarded our bus on a frigid morning for a trip to the DMZ. As we drove through Seoul, passing highways, traffic jams, skyscrapers, and bridges — all the conveniences and inconveniences of modern life — I was struck by the reality confron-ting South Korea. It faces an existential threat ninety minutes away from its capital city. Only a select few of North Korea’s estimated twenty-two million people have anything to lose, but fifteen million people in Seoul alone have everything to lose. Yet it is impossible to ignore the massive human suffering inflicted on the North Korean people just a short drive away from downtown Seoul. South Korea has completed an unparalleled rags-to-riches story, but its greatness as a nation will not be fulfilled until the Korean peninsula is unified and whole again.


In addition to our trip to the DMZ, we had the opportunity to meet people who had crossed it.  Mr. Ahn and Mr. Choi from the North Korea Strategy Working Group (NKSWG) were kind enough to meet with us to discuss their organization’s work, as well as their deeply personal and harrowing stories.

Due to his father’s high standing in the Korea Worker’s Party (KWP), Mr. Ahn held a job as a prison guard at Camp 22.  At the camp, guards were told that all prisoners committed unspeakable crimes, thus justifying their sub-human treatment.  After a couple years as a guard, Mr. Ahn became a driver at the camp, which meant he began to have more interaction with the prisoners.  Naturally, he began to ask them why they were in the camp.  It soon became apparent, however, that the prisoners had no idea—most of the time, they were simply picked up in the middle of the night without explanation.  This discovery ran directly counter to what Mr. Ahn had been told.  The rest of the dominoes began to fall in short order.  During a massive famine in the 1990s, Mr. Ahn’s father made a remark against the government, and his family was put under close surveillance.  At this point, Mr. Ahn fully recognized the unfairness of life in North Korea and decided to escape by swimming across the Tumen River.

Mr. Choi was a dentist in North Korea.  During the same famine, he saw people starving to death all around him.  His calculation was simple: leave or starve.  Mr. Choi first escaped to China, but due to the constant threat of being captured and resent to North Korea, he decided to make his way to Mongolia.  On his way there, Mr. Choi was captured and sent back to North Korea, where he was imprisoned for six months before being released. “Freedom is like a drug,” Mr. Choi told us.  Upon his release, he immediately sought to escape again through the same China – Mongolia – South Korea route.  This time, he made it.

North Korea is still the most closed country in the world, but over the past two decades a steady trickle of outside information has begun to create tangible changes in society.  Growing access to foreign radio broadcasts, South Korean DVDs, and other media devices is changing North Koreans’ behavior, and thoughts and attitudes about the outside world—and more importantly, about their own country.

Interestingly, both Mr. Ahn and Choi mentioned the role of foreign media, especially CDs, in enabling them to form a picture of the outside world.  They noted that increasingly, this media is coming in digital form, such as South Korean DVDs and TV dramas that are being smuggled into the country on USB sticks.  Significantly, this means that North Koreans can now see, not just hear, about the outside world.  This poses an existential threat to the regime.  As Mr. Ahn and Choi noted, nine out of ten defectors have seen such DVDs.  In response, the North Korean regime has used public executions to punish those who possess or distribute foreign media, and to send a message to the wider population about the consequences of doing so.  As with most things in North Korea, it is unclear if this has been an effective deterrent.

The NKSWG presentation suggested that one low-risk, high-reward action the United States and other governments can take to help the North Korea people is to increase the flow of outside information into the country.

Reports from the State Department and two prominent North Korea scholars, Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, found that for North Koreans, consumption of foreign media leads to more negative assessments of the regime and its intentions, as well as positive beliefs and attitudes about South Korea and the U.S.  When you consider that North Koreans are bombarded with anti-U.S. and South Korea propaganda from birth, this is a very significant finding.

If exposure to foreign media increases, it is reasonable to predict the North Korean regime will increasingly lose credibility.  Once a critical mass of North Koreans is sufficiently informed and empowered, the regime could face a momentous decision.  On the one hand, it could start to implement political and economic reforms.  On the other, it could stage a violent crackdown on its own people.  The former would be a step in the right direction.  The latter would call the world’s attention to North Korea in unprecedented fashion.  For the first time, the Kim regime would face mounting domestic and international pressure to reform.

In his book Escape from Camp 14, author Blaine Harden recounts Shin Dong-Hyuk’s escape from one of North Korea’s most notorious prison camps.  Shin endures almost unspeakable suffering at the camp, but the driving force behind his decision to escape is ultimately quite simple: the prospect of eating grilled meat.  We don’t know what information will be the tipping point for a person, community, or nation.  We do know that providing it increases the chances that this tipping point will be reached.  For the people of North Korea, that moment cannot come soon enough.

In sharing their stories, Mr. Ahn and Mr. Choi are doing critical work. Such exchanges of information about conditions of life in North Korea and its gross violations of human rights will help to build empathy among South Koreans. This, in turn, will make it increasingly difficult for them to overlook the plight of their fellow Koreans. After years of living in South Korea, Mr. Ahn mentioned that he is “still shocked that forty miles from here, there are people with no concept of freedom whatsoever.” Increasing the flow of information into North Korea could help to change this reality.

By Zach Przystup