About the Author
View more articles by Tae-il Shim
Tae-il Shim is a pseudonym for a North Korean defector writer. He left the DPRK in 2018, and now resides in South Korea.
Long time no see, Ask a North Korean readers!
To newcomers and old friends alike, welcome to the feature where you, our NK News readers, can submit a question and have it answered by our North Korean writers.
Today’s question comes from Nanda in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, who asks if defections from the North will be able to “create a ground shift and maybe change… society[‘s] behavior towards regime propaganda.”
The total number of defectors to have arrived in the South is over 30,000, and many of them keep in contact in some way with friends and family back home.
Their experiences of life the South are bound to have an impact on those back in the North, especially since information about the outside world is so heavily restricted.
Tae-il Shim, who came to South Korea in 2018 and used to help people across the border himself, is just the man to tell us what impact these defections are having on North Korean society.
Got a question for Tae-il? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
The number of defectors, which started to become very noticeable in the mid-1990s, is now in the hundreds of thousands.
South Korea is second to China in North Korean defector numbers, with approximately 34,000.
But it’s said that the same number of East Germans would cross the border to the West in a day — that it took decades for North Korean defector numbers in the South to reach the same figure shows just how difficult the journey is.
The defector walks a path on the edge between life and death, their fate left to the unknown.
I too gambled with my life when I defected. I left North Korea in secret, and it wouldn’t just be me who had such a lonesome departure from their homeland.
So why didn’t I bring more people out of North Korea — a country where people are struggling to survive — with me?
Well, the North Korean self-monitoring and report system has taken firm root in general society, thanks to over 70 years of brainwashing education.
Families of defectors and those with suspicious anti-state thoughts are closely watched and controlled by the authorities.
I’ve heard that the person in charge of neighborhood security has detailed information on who in their unit is blacklisted, the number of people per household, each person’s employment status, their personal connections, and even the number of spoons and chopsticks in each household.
Considering such circumstances, how could you risk sharing your plans about defection with others, even to close friends?
I finally fled North Korea last October after a few attempts, along with my wife and son. None of my brothers or relatives were aware of what we’d done.
The defector walks a path on the edge between life and death, their fate left to the unknown
When I was in North Korea, I really wanted to hear news about relatives and friends who had gone to South Korea a decade or two ago so I could map out the best defection route.
Now, on the other side, I’m thrilled when my brothers and friends call and text me from North Korea. They ask why I left alone without them, how I’m doing these days, and which route I followed to cross the border.
Until around 10 years ago, people kept their cell phones for calling China and South Korea a secret, their use confined to only immediate family members. Today they are more openly shared among like-minded people.
The phones must stay switched off, however, because illegal overseas calls are strictly banned and severely punished depending on the extent of the breach.
Calls are made at a pre-arranged date and time, agreed upon by the caller in North Korea and the recipient in either China or South Korea.
The Ministry of State Security’s detection police, called the ‘111 Command Squad’ (111지휘조), watches for anti-state crimes such as escape attempts and trading South Korean cell phones. They monitor 24 hours a day and even wait in the mountains with a radio locator to ambush callers.
To avoid them, the call must be as brief as possible.
Anyway, there are hundreds of thousands of North Koreans who have defector relatives in the South. Those that make contact end up lamenting their misfortune and their inability to follow in their relatives’ footsteps.
The biggest stumbling block is the so-called ‘cover fee’ (a bribe you pay to the border guards who, in return, secure your smuggling passage).
The price varies depending on the crossing point but on average (based on my knowledge as of October 2018, when I defected) it ranges between 30,000 RMB -150,000 RMB — defection, to a large extent, revolves around money.
Three days before I left North Korea, I met Ms. Sohn, a 36-year-old woman, and her husband, who had lived in South Korea for four years when they decided to run a scam defection scheme.
They collected brokerage fees from North Korean defectors in South Korea, promising to escort clients’ families from China to South Korea. But what they actually did after receiving their money was convene the 43 would-be defectors somewhere in China for the North Korean embassy to come and forcefully repatriate them back to the DPRK.
The couple was then taken back to North Korea, rewarded with a vacation in Pyongyang, before returning to Hyesan, their hometown.
Upon her return, the people of Hyesan all blamed and cursed her when they found out what she had done to all these would-be defectors. “A thunderbolt will strike that human-garbage devil for putting those innocent people in an unescapable political prison!”
Hyesan locals didn’t view the defectors as state betrayers, they grieved their fates.
I think there will come a time when people will not just sit by and watch
North Korean leaders Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un have so far gone a long way to deter defection, in collaboration with Chinese leaders Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping. North Korea offered the Chinese 2m3‘s worth of logs per defector captured on Chinese soil and repatriated.
One might expect that the returnees would at least be fed and clothed because that’s why they left in the first place. On the contrary, they were dragged to a reformatory, which had the result of planting deep grudges against the government within North Koreans.
Even in the top ranks there are those who spit on the dictatorship and the hereditary politics of the Kim family — case in point, the incident of Mr. Lee.
Mr. Lee, who worked at Ryanggang province’s Ministry of State Security, shot himself with his own gun allegedly after being harrassed for helping out would-be defectors.
One may consider suicide as merely a cowardly evasion of one’s responsibility or confrontation, but in North Korea it is considered an act of rebellion and thus the person’s bereaved family is punished severely. His son was working in the Bodyguard Bureau (호위국) in Pyongyang and was subsequently discharged, leaving the family with no way to support themselves.
That someone of Mr. Lee’s rank in the Ministry of State Security, the most authoritative institution, committed such ‘treacherous behavior’ against the government shook all of Ryanggang province hard and caused widespread repercussions throughout the entire country.
By the way, Mr. Lee, despite his own difficulties, gave my son money to get some food for me while I was serving my 10-year prison term. I was overcome with grief when I heard of his death after being released.
What’s interesting is that the families and relatives of defectors, who were once despised, are now admired.
This is because you can at times benefit a little from their generosity — as I mentioned in my previous article, amongst ordinary people defectors’ families are second in affluence only to the drug dealers.
For such reasons, I am optimistic about the future of North Korea. USB drives with Korean TV series and movies have flooded into North Korea, causing people to follow many South Korean trends.
North Korea’s missile launches and nuclear development have made people’s lives even worse, which in turn affects what they think of the regime. I think there will come a time when North Koreans will not just sit by and watch.
In summary, I think that the sizable number of defectors will continue to have a big impact on North Korea, nudging the country towards a brighter future.
Translated by Jihye Park
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Morsky Studio