The reliability of North Korean defectors’ testimony and the celebrity status some of them have achieved has caused controversy inside and outside the Korean Peninsula.
High-profile members of the defector community told NK News they were worried about the reliability of defectors’ testimony, while recognizing their contributions to revealing the realities of North Korea. One suggested that more than half of celebrity defectors’ experiences are exaggerated. They generally worry about the distrust caused by false testimonies, saying it might undermine South Koreans’ motivation for unification.
More than one expert said the unstable status of defectors has caused this predicament, saying the inability to settle down in South Korean society makes defectors lie, as does the discrimination that exacerbates the difficulties they face.
In part 33 of a new NK News expert interview series, defector experts interviewed include:
- Kim Heung-kwang, Representative, North Korean Intellectual Solidarity
- Kim Seong-min, Executive Director, Free North Korea Radio
- Kim Young-hui, Korea Development Bank, Chief of the North Korean Economy Team, (Ph.D. in North Korean Studies)
- Lee Youn-geol, President, North Korea Strategic Information Service Center
- Kim Seung-chul, President, North Korea Reform Radio
Q33) What are the benefits and disadvantages, in your opinion, of Western and South Korean media making defectors into celebrities?
I think it generally, has, a positive influence. Celebrities can be role models for defectors. It can give them hope that, “I can achieve if I try.” The enthusiasm of successful defectors can improve other defectors’ confidence and self-esteem, since they face constrictions in South Korea.
There are labels for defectors in South Korea, like gang members or drug addicts. But North Koreans are well aware about the lawmaker (and defector) Cho Myung-cheol. The rise of defectors can thus confirm South Korea as a “land of opportunity,” where ordinary people can become lawmakers.
It can confirm South Korea as a “land of opportunity”
I think the negative aspect originates from traditional regionalism, which holds back the Northern people. There is a perception about Northerners as rude, tough and goal-oriented. Plus, for Southern people, it might be unacceptable for North Koreans to take a leading role in society, threatening South Koreans’ established positions.
Since North Korea itself is a mysterious and veiled place, the international community and media treats defectors’ testimonies and autobiographical essays with great importance.
In particular, if one is a survivor of a political prison camp or a high-ranking defector, their testimony (or autobiography) plays an important role in uncovering the inhumane aspects of the North Korean regime for the international community and discussing countermeasures to such happenings in North Korea.
Unscrupulous behavior and a lack of verification leads to suspicion about all defectors’ testimonies and even attacks from the North Korean regime.
There is no doubt that these defectors play an important role, but unscrupulous behavior and a lack of verification leads to suspicion about all defectors’ testimonies and even attacks from the North Korean regime.
All this is to say that the media and international community need a method of verification and caution when dealing with defectors.
Western and South Korean media have exaggerated defectors’ experiences and the reality in North Korea, so it has made them celebrities. This situation gives South Koreans the opinion that we do not need to be unified with those pathetic people, and leads them to misunderstand the real lives of North Koreans. Therefore, it was wrong to cause confusion in society by leaving the public with the wrong opinions.
These exaggerated “created celebrities” will not be able to understand the moral hazards of their actions
These exaggerated “false celebrities” will not be able to understand the moral hazards of their actions. Media companies and broadcasters cannot be held responsible for the results. As liberal democratic society is entirely connected by trust among people, so these exaggerated celebrities from North Korea are responsible for the results.
In fact, at least 50 percent of past experiences shared by famous defectors have been exaggerated through Western and South Korean press and broadcasts. We will recognize that it is exaggerated when we look at the situations and their details through the eyes of normal defectors.
One positive thing is letting North Korea know international society’s opinion of North Korea’s human rights violations.
He will face a temptation to exaggerate the facts
A such, making a defector into a celebrity can be helpful for promoting the issue. However, he will fade from the spotlight quickly, so to arouse attention again, he will face a temptation to exaggerate the facts. This will cause defectors to distort their lives, and sometimes this can harm their lives.
It causes many unprepared defectors to live dishonest lives, succumbing to the strong temptation to pursue only money and glory.
There is no positive aspect to this phenomena. There are more negative aspects than positive.
In South Korea, it is impossible for defectors to earn a high income and become celebrities, so they focus on studying about reunification and North Korean studies so that they can become famous.
But it is difficult to be accepted by the circle of North Korea experts that were already (in South Korea), a group that itself often condemns defectors. In reality, they do not hire defectors who have doctorates. It is thus hard for defectors that study North Korea to become established in the field dealing with North Korea.
Even though defectors hold an advantage in analyzing aspects of North Korea, they are usually not hired. There is the problem of the level (of education) among the defectors, but the reason why they are not accepted is because even when a defector holds a doctorate, they are seen as rivals.
Also, the people that are investigating North Korea do not want to work with people that are from North Korea. Because of this, they are strongly against anyone who could become better off than they are. Even though the defectors are better at analyzing North Korea because they have lived there, experts that are defectors will not be accepted and will be blocked from settling in academia.
There are more negative aspects
It is also more difficult because they do not have connections through schools, regions and blood ties in South Korean society. People usually bring in those they know and this makes it hard for defectors to compete with South Koreans.
Main picture: NK News
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