The perspective of a North Korean defector who yearns for home

By Kim Young-il Translated by Elizabeth Song

This past week, we were able to witness the historic moment of a North Korean leader stepping on South Korean soil for the first time. The two leaders greeted each other with pleasantries and put on a smile for the cameras. What a milestone for the Korean peninsula!

But wait. Whatever happened to the infamous Kim Jong-un—the merciless dictator who puts his regime above everything else and will go to extreme ends to justify his rule, at the expense of crushing his people’s human rights and controlling their every move? As much as I, too, hope that the summit represents an actual change in Kim’s priorities, it is all the more important to assess the reality of the situation objectively to evaluate the implications of the summit.

I am a North Korean defector. Over the past 13 years, I have participated in various NGO activities to raise awareness of the issue of reunification and have shared my own experiences of having lived in the North to shed light on North Korean human rights violations.

To live in North Korea means to accept the fact that your identity is tied to a political organization (whether it be the Workers’ Party, the Children’s Alliance, or the Kim il-sung Youth Alliance, among many others) under the inescapable control of the regime. It means to come to terms with the fact that you will have to commit illegal crimes just to ensure your survival, knowing full well that your every action is being monitored. This is especially true for those in the middle or lower classes for whom the government does not provide sufficient basic necessities. While it is easier for those in the higher classes to accumulate wealth by accepting bribes or exploiting the weak, this “simple” task of survival is a formidable challenge for the common farmer or laborer. They must find their own way to fend for themselves, such as setting up shop, which usually ends up breaking the law. Though they risk severe punishment on a daily basis, they are left with no other choice.

Kim’s facade

Some people have called the inter-Korean summit last week “the most unexpected turn of events.” Indeed, it must have been shocking, to say the least, to see the reclusive and volatile dictator crossing the demilitarized zone into South Korea, making his comments public to the world, and adding the phrase “complete denuclearization” to the Panmunjom Declaration. But in my opinion, this was nothing more than pageantry, carefully orchestrated to attract the attention of global media. The North Korean government has used propaganda for decades to legitimize its rule, so Kim is all too familiar with what the media wants and how he should act in front of cameras. His attempt at changing his tyrannical image was, to a degree, successful.     

The international community over the years has labeled Kim as a recluse who shuns foreign influences and remains ignorant of how the outside world operates. However, as evident from his behavior in the summit, Kim knows exactly what the global community expects of him.

Kim’s knowledge of the global community comes from his own engagement in foreign media–something that he forbids the rest of his people from accessing. Even before he met President Moon, he had already read South Korean articles addressing the event. And although he lives in the North, his mixed use of the North and South Korean dialects is evidence of his exposure to South Korean TV and newspapers. The biggest difference between the South and North Korean dialects is the way they pronounce the “L” (ㄹ) consonant. South Koreans change the “L” character at the beginning of a word to “O” (ㅇ), while North Koreans retain the “L” pronunciation. This linguistic difference is enough to make it hard for North Korean defectors to adjust to South Korean society. But multiple times throughout the summit, Kim alternated between the North’s and South’s pronunciations of the word “리행/이행” (which means “fulfillment”) with ease and addressed reporters with the honorifics “분들,” which is not used in the North.

Kim’s true stance remains vague, contrary to his seemingly transparent persona at the summit. Kim has emphasized the fulfillment of promises made in previous inter-Korean summits and has shown discomfort regarding increased tensions for the past 10 years during the rule of the anti-North conservative party in the South. The issues of reunification and the improvement of inter-Korean relations have been raised in the 2007 and 2018 summits, and the goal of “complete denuclearization” was included in the Panmunjom Declaration last week. While these steps may be seen as considerable progress, it is important to note the ambiguity of the phrase “confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearisation, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” This phrase alone has invited many different interpretations: some are optimistic that this topic will be dealt with in the upcoming summit with President Donald Trump, while more skeptical others believe Kim will find a way to use this to blame others if things do not go well.  

Although the North has always claimed to work towards denuclearization, Kim considers his nuclear arsenal an indispensable tool to protect his totalitarian rule from foreign interference. For years, Kim and his predecessors have worked very hard to develop these weapons of mass destruction, all the while receiving war threats and condemnation from the entire world. So, it would make no sense for him to give all that up so easily. Because Kim is aware that Trump needs to offer the US public tangible, credible promises about denuclearization in the fast-approaching mid-terms elections, Kim may use this time crunch to his advantage. Completely ridding the North of its nuclear arsenal cannot be done in a matter of months, but Kim may lead the US into believing that it is feasible, without fully committing to full denuclearization. For example, he may tell the US that he has dismantled all of his nuclear weapons, while keeping some of them hidden.

The promises made by Kim cannot be taken lightly. It is imperative that countries understand Kim’s disposition and history as the leader of North Korea and not be fooled by the mask he puts on in public.

Who will win this “game”?

In order to win a game, being able to predict the opponent’s moves is crucial. The inter-Korean summit can be thought of as a game. On the surface, it may seem like the North is at a disadvantage, cornered by sanctions passed by the UN and the international community. But in terms of guessing the opponent’s strategy, North Korea is actually in a position of advantage because it is such a secluded nation. Its strict restrictions on foreign sources make it hard for other nations to predict what the North is up to.

Furthermore, the operation of the North Korean government is left to the whim of the Kim family. Since the government serves to reinforce Kim’s legitimacy as dictator, Kim has all the power to shape or annul the law any way he desires. This unpredictability adds to the difficulty of understanding the North. The global community needs to take these factors into account and realize that the North is not an easy opponent to deal with.

Will the North keep its promise?

The promises that Kim has offered are not significant in themselves–it’s how well the promises will be followed up on that really matters. Although this summit does represent an ease in tension between the two Koreas, it would be hasty to look towards the future of the Korean peninsula with rose-tinted glasses. In the past, there have been two other inter-Korean summits and several more meetings between South and North Korean officials, each of which was heralded as an important step towards peace. However, every time, the fanfare and excitement died down in a matter of months. Why haven’t these past conferences and meetings produced fruitful results? The root of the problem is that the North simply doesn’t feel compelled to keep its promises.

This lack of urgency can be better understood by analyzing the structure and priorities of the North Korean regime. Although North Korea has legislative, judicial, and executive branches like many other countries, they lack any real function. The “Supreme Leader” is the highest authority, and he is the only one in the nation who holds undisputable status. He is above the law, and so can annul or change the law any time. If he doesn’t believe denuclearization is a priority, then so be it. With very heavy restrictions on freedom of speech in place, the North does not hesitate to mete out harsh punishment to those who question the leader’s decisions.

The disruption of global peace is not a concern for the North. What Kim really cares about is maintaining his regime, so his decisions and responses in the coming months will reflect this priority.

There are many promises that came out of this summit, but it is important to judge the likelihood that they will actually be kept. First of all, if North and South Korean citizens are given freedom of movement across the border, the North Korean authorities will need to relinquish a large degree of control over its citizens, which the North is unlikely to do. The extent of the North’s “leniency” would be allowing its citizens to travel to the South not individually but in groups that can be easily tracked.

Moreover, a look at the North’s past economic tendencies helps highlight issues that will likely arise. If the Kaesong Industrial Complex is reopened, the North may revert to its past practices of exploiting North Korean laborers. Just like in the early 2000s, the North Korean government, out of a dire need for foreign currency, may send workers to the industrial zone to work for South Korean businesses but pay them close to nothing, keeping a large portion of the profit for itself. In addition, the North cares too much about retaining control over its citizens’ economic activities. In 2002, then-dictator Kim Jung-il allowed some market functions to operate, but as soon as citizens started to accumulate wealth, he confiscated their assets because he saw their wealth as a threat to the socialist economy and the regime’s power. If the North really cares about its economy, it must grant its citizens more economic freedom and protect their private property, like what China does.

Third, at both the 2000 and 2018 inter-Korean summits, the North proposed a “loose federation system” regarding reunification, in which the two different governments would exist under one federal state. But how feasible is the co-existence of such radically different systems–one which refuses to relinquish its iron-fist rule and the other, which prizes freedom and democracy?

Having lived in the North for almost 20 years, I miss my home in Hamhung dearly and genuinely advocate reunification and peace. Nevertheless, I know that I must always take Kim’s actions and words with a grain of salt. Subjective desires aside, I must be more skeptical than idealistic and face the objective truth that the North still has a long way to go in fulfilling its side of the agreement with the South.

So, I encourage the rest of the international community to also stay alert and not give the North their full confidence just yet. The North legitimizes its authority by suppressing citizens’ complaints, implementing harsh punitive measures against dissidents, quelling any kind of resistance, and disseminating anti-US sentiments. So how reasonable is it to expect such an unstable, unhealthy nation to fulfill its promises?

This is exactly why the goal of normalizing the North’s government and social structure is just as important as denuclearizing the peninsula. Instead of limiting talks to the dismantlement of the North’s nuclear arsenal, future summits must also address North Korean human rights violations and put more pressure on the North to observe international guidelines regarding humane treatment of citizens. Fostering a system of checks and balances that would limit the North Korean leader’s power will prove to be a daunting task. However, by keeping North Korea, which has so often threatened global peace, in check, this approach will lead not only to peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula but also to global harmony and stability.  

Kim Young-il is a North Korean defector and founder of PSCORE (People for Successful COrean Reunification), a nonprofit organization that aims to raise awareness of reunification and North Korean human rights violations.
Elizabeth Song is a recent graduate of Cornell University and currently works as an intern at PSCORE.