Today we bring you the third installment of our rebooted Ask a North Korean feature, where NK News readers can send in their questions and have them answered by our North Korean writers.
This is In-hua Kim’s second contribution to NK News. You can read In-hua’s first piece, where she discusses her descent from a comfortable middle-class military-family life to famine and then escape to South Korea, here.
We’re all familiar with DPRK propaganda that shows Kim Jong Un touring the country, greeted everywhere he goes by cheering crowds of his adoring subjects. You would be hard-pressed to find this show of love for a leader in any other country on earth.
So, is this support for the regime as unanimous as it seems on North Korean television? Is it all a show? Or is it somewhere in between?
We asked In-hua to share her experiences of how loyalty to the DPRK rulers, from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Un, has changed over the years. She provided us with an interesting personal account of how even her own views about the leaders changed during her time in North Korea.
NOTE: Some translations of places, terminology, etc. in this article are unofficial translations — we’ve included the original Korean in parentheses.
Got a question for In-hua? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
My husband passed away in 2004, not too long after being discharged from the army. I was left with the sole responsibility for my two daughters and had to find some way to survive.
I asked my mother if she could take care of my younger daughter if I went to China to earn some money. Infuriated, she snapped, “Are you deranged? Do you want to bring disgrace upon the whole family?”
My mother’s generation, who had lived through Japanese colonialization and the Korean War, view Kim Il Sung as a god-like figure and are very loyal to his leadership.
Even today, some elderly people might report someone to the ministry of state security if they catch them denigrating the nation or suggesting that they intend to go to South Korea.
After being scolded by my mother, I dissuaded my daughter from going across the border together to earn money and then return home. My daughter nodded her head in agreement, but she eventually crossed the border on January 2007 without my consent or knowledge.
I went to go and find her two months later, determined to go to wherever in China if that’s what it took. I ended up being sold, but I escaped after 10 days and worked at a clothing factory in Qingdao for a year.
I was eventually reunited with my daughter, but when I saw how much she wanted to make money I decided to leave her there, returning home alone out of concern for my younger daughter.
“Who cares about being well-fed and clothed? Our country regulates our lives. In China, there are no rules and people are lawless.”
My year in China was very difficult. I was earning money and was well-fed and clothed, but that still doesn’t necessarily make one happy.
I thought China was a lawless place when I first started working there since they held no ideological study or self-criticism sessions (생활총화). But my daughter burst into laughter when I told her this.
“In North Korea, we have a day for ideological study and self-criticism every week. Without this, how does China keep so many people civil and under control?” I wondered.
At any rate, I turned myself into the Chinese security office and was subsequently repatriated.
I was determined never to betray my country again. If anyone asked me about whether I would escape again, I would preach to them about how great the fatherland is, discouraging people from leaving: “I experienced China for a year and it was no better than our nation. Who cares about being well-fed and clothed? Our nation regulates our lives. In China, there are no rules and people are lawless.”
THE DECLINE OF THE ‘SONGUN’ LIFESTYLE
I was living in an army apartment to which my now-deceased husband was first assigned after graduating from military school. We relocated once for a new post, after which he was discharged and passed away. But longing for traces of my husband, I moved back into the old apartment.
Everyone used to envy that apartment complex during the 1980s and 1990s, because all living necessities and food were supplied by the government for the resident military families.
When I returned in late 2010, those once-privileged people were living a worse life than non-military families.
But as the government provisions provided under Kim Jong Il’s ‘Songun’ (선군, military first) policy started to disappear even military families had to find household items and food themselves.
Because of this true loyalty to the regime would be hard to find. But no one outright expresses animosity since the ministry of state security would arrest anyone who speaks their mind.
No one shed a tear when Kim Jong Il died, whereas Kim Il Sung’s death felt like the end of the world
While Kim Il Sung was alive, the Korean people worked together as one to make a strong country. When Kim Jong Il took power, people suffered an unprecedented food crisis. These were tough times to live in.
There was also a difference in how people reacted to the deaths of the erstwhile leaders. People would say, in hushed voices, that no one shed a tear when Kim Jong Il died, whereas Kim Il Sung’s death felt like the end of the world.
Up until my parents’ generation, people and their children were totally devoted to the leader. All of my family members were in the Workers’ Party of Korea. But what was the fate of these loyal followers?
My father and older brother had little access to medicine in the late 1990s and passed away. My older sisters are struggling to make ends meet sewing. My youngest sister is serving a life sentence in a reformatory (교화소), charged with watching a South Korean video (her husband was a military officer so she was punished harshly to serve as an example to others). The whereabouts of my younger brother are unknown.
This is the result of my father’s preaching to be faithful to the leader, to repay what we owe to the Party.
Having returned home, I bought novels and picture books at low prices with the money my daughter sent from South Korea and ran a book rental business. I would telephone her in secret, but did not agree to defect.
I stayed in North Korea because I believed that there would be no place as good as one’s hometown. I did not want to leave my home behind.
One time, I liaised via telephone between a mother in South Korea and her son in the North, delivering cash between the two of them. That incident came to light two years later and I was punished with two-years of compulsory labor at a reformatory.
I used to believe that North Korea was the best country in the world, where I received schooling and medical treatment free of charge and food at an affordable cost. Married to a soldier, I was even provided with daily essentials and clothes for my husband.
There was no place like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on the planet. I believed that those American bastards, the very worst people in the world, would cause us hardship here and there, but that the pain would not last long.
Handcuffed, I finally realized that such free provisions were actually earned through the hard labor of my parents and siblings. With my body in chains, I learned that the culprits of our suffering were the incapable leadership, not our American foes.
I was terrified when I first entered the prison cell, by the number of women there and also by the color of their faces – all of them were bluish from excessive sodium intake. After a while, my face also turned the same color.
I used to believe that North Korea was the best country in the world
All of the convicts said that they would immediately try and head to South Korea upon release. The woman in the same cell as me defected straight after getting out – I met again her at Hanawon, South Korea’s settlement support center.
Of all the prisoners, 80% were being punished on charges of unlawful cell phone usage, border crossing, watching South Korean videos, and human trafficking (assisting border-crossing). They maintain that “society has criminalized us – why would we violate the law if it functioned normally?”
Having been captured with no arrest warrant, thrown in a reformatory, I regretted the numerous times I rejected my daughter’s advice to come to South Korea.
I gradually grasped the truth of my country. I asked myself, “why should we be cannon fodder for the one person on top? Why should we live and die for the sake of Kim Jong Un?”
I knew nothing about politics. I was just an ordinary woman who wanted to make enough money to live a happy life with her family. But even that modest wish was a far-fetched one in the DPRK.
North Koreans were isolated from the outside world like frogs in a well. No outside news entered into the country. Only after arriving in South Korea did I come to grips with the true nature of North Korea.
LOYALTY TO THE KIMS IS ALL BUT GONE
Though there are a privileged few still loyal to the leadership, I believe that by now the average person, as well as the upper classes, are aware of the realities of North Korea, at least to a certain extent.
For example, my family watched many South Korean television series before leaving the country. I even saw ‘Descendants of the Sun’ (태양의 후예), a well-known South Korean TV show, in North Korea.
I laugh now in South Korea when I see scenes of North Koreans cheering, as I know that their cheering is not genuinely from the heart.
It would be safe to interpret their cheers as pent-up anger derived from unconscious fear. They walk on eggshells to avoid the attention of the ministry of state security.
One day in June 2018, the head official of the village office convened the heads of people’s neighborhood units and warned, “the inspection group for non-socialist practices has been dispatched to examine our area. Please caution all the villagers lest any of them get in trouble. Beware of all the alley businesses. Let’s trust the government one more time!”
From what I see, he was merely trying to persuade disillusioned people to follow the government’s instructions. He referred to removing anti-socialist means of livelihood to which people were unlawfully but inevitably dependent on for survival, and to instead count on the government’s provisions, which had continuously failed the people.
However, his comment, which was well-meaning but alluded to the malfunctioning of the government, was reported to the ministry of state security and he was arrested on charges of being reactionary.
Fear has meant that North Koreans have not been able to speak out in protest
How ridiculous is that! I wanted to escape from such persecution. I no longer wanted to cry false cheers and sweep the street every morning, an obligatory task given to us by the people’s neighborhood unit. I yearned for a life where I could do work which I was passionate about, what I thought was worthwhile.
I like my life in South Korea. I used to think it was crazy that the Chinese had no self-criticism sessions or ideological study. And yet I myself am now living in such a way.
No one tells me to study, but I read books so I can learn the knowledge necessary to get by. Criticism sessions are no longer mandatory, but I have my own time for self-reflection each day.
At times, I lie in bed and compare my two lives in the North and in the South.
Under Kim Il Sung’s rule, North Koreans fared better than their Southern counterparts. But even though life was difficult, people in the South did not defect from their country. They defended their homeland and strived to achieve democracy.
I have a heavy heart when I think about how the suffering of North Koreans, that started during Kim Jong Il’s reign, has continued to this day. Fear has meant that North Koreans have not been able to speak out in protest.
Life is good for me now.
I no longer need to pledge loyalty to anyone. All I have left to do is work diligently to support my children and to bring my siblings still back home to South Korea.
People in the North are well aware that hard work pays off in the South and that only here will they stand a chance to live a humane life.
They see proof of this through the large remittances sent from their relatives who have defected to the South.
What I saw before I left is that people of all ages were keen to flee to South Korea once they could secure a safe route. It’s a dream shared by all of the ordinary people in my hometown.
Translated by Jihye Park
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Adam Westerman