Image: KCTV | A screenshot from a short North Korean documentary about U.K. Korea Friendship Association Chairman Dermot Hudson
“Ask a North Korean” is an NK News series featuring interviews with North Korean defectors, most of whom left the DPRK within the last few years.
Readers may submit their questions for defectors by emailing [email protected] and including their first name and city of residence.
Today’s question is from Evan Sutton, who asks what North Koreans think about those in the West who support the Pyongyang regime.
Hyun-seung Lee — who comes from an elite North Korean family and defected in 2014 — spoke with NK News about state propaganda on overseas sympathizers, how DPRK spy agencies leverage such support and how he would respond to those who deny his and other defectors’ testimonies about North Korea.
Lee now resides in the U.S., where he works as a director for One Korea Network and a fellow of North Korean studies at the Global Peace Foundation. He also runs the Pyonghattan YouTube channel with his sister.
NK News: What do you think of Westerners who defend North Korea and its government, such as those who claim that every single bad thing about North Korea is CIA propaganda and that defectors are fake?
Lee: That they believe the North Korean line — that American propaganda paints North Korean in a bad light — really surprised me at first. I couldn’t wrap my head around there being foreigners who support the North Korean government and believe that defectors are liars.
I lived a life of the North Korean elite class for 29 years. It was after I understood the true nature of the Kim Jong Un regime that I defected. Why do these pro-North foreigners have no regard for the suffering of North Korean people? I sometimes feel angry when I see these supporters of the DPRK government refusing to listen to the testimonies and laments of scores of North Korean defectors.
I went through over 20 years of anti-American education in North Korea. In kindergarten, I learned of how the American imperialists invaded the Korean Peninsula and started a war. It was drilled into me that they were demons who murdered countless people … However, I’ve lived in America for five years now and haven’t seen anti-North Korean education anywhere.
I do see many books containing analysis of the North Korean government’s actions, and the testimony of defectors. If those supporters of North Korea say that such books are CIA propaganda, then I must disabuse them of such a delusion.
NK News: How would you counter those who deny the experiences of defectors like yourself?
Lee: To those defenders of North Korea in the West and elsewhere, who claim that the North Korean government can do no wrong, as well as to those Korean Americans who lay the blame on America for North Korea’s nuclear program, I have three important facts regarding North Korea I would like to remind them of.
First, the problem of whether North Korea is a country that safeguards human rights and freedom. There’s no beating around the bush: North Korea habitually violates universal human values. The DPRK is also a country where the people’s right to pursue happiness is not guaranteed.
Second, it is only when one considers North Korea’s inhumane domestic policies — the cruel executions and political prison camps that have been run for decades now — that one approaches a better understanding of the country. I have witnessed with my own eyes friends being executed by anti-aircraft artillery and being dragged off to political prison camps. I’ve also had friends who I assumed dead return from political prison camps.
Lastly, guess how much the average North Korean citizen lives off per year? If only it were possible for them to live in the DPRK not as a privileged foreigner but as an ordinary North Korean … After living as a North Korean, they will soon understand clearly.
NK News: DPRK propaganda regularly features the Korean Friendship Association (KFA), aiming to give the impression North Korea’s government and the Juche ideology have many followers in foreign countries. Do most North Koreans believe this?
Lee: People who haven’t had much contact with the outside world tend to believe North Korean propaganda. Such propaganda is repeated a hundred, two hundred times over, and people subconsciously come to believe it. For decades, North Korea has put great effort into propagating the lie that its leaders are like gods.
North Korean people have little interest in the specifics of individuals or groups supporting the country from the outside. Only specific institutions such as the Workers’ Party of Korea’s United Front Department (UFD) and the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (CCRFC) take an interest in this. This is because it is their job to win over foreigners and get them to praise the Pyongyang regime. Other than these state institutions, nobody else has any interest in groups such as Women Cross DMZ [WCDMZ is an American nonprofit organization that aims to advance peace on the Korean Peninsula] or Korean Americans who support the North.
North Korean elites are well aware that these groups are little more than pawns in North Korea’s propaganda operations. Even if they might have heard some specific names, they will treat this area as something they don’t need to know. There’s always the fear that being too involved with such people might lead one to be accused of being a spy, which needless to say has dire consequences. Thus North Koreans generally have no interest in pro-North outsiders.
NK News: Had you heard of KFA Chairman Alejandro Cao de Benós or KFA UK Chairman Dermot Hudson while living in North Korea?
In North Korea, there are literally only a handful of people who know about them. Regardless of them having been in documentaries, most North Korean people couldn’t care less. This is because these people are merely propaganda tools that are being mobilized to promote the regime in and outside North Korea.
The UFD specifically manages these people, as well as Korean Americans friendly to North Korea. They act according to UFD directives.
An acquaintance’s father was a UFD vice director, and I also have several friends who work for the UFD. Thus I’ve heard accounts of the activities and roles of such pro-North groups and individuals from those in the know.
NK News: KFA works with CCRFC as their North Korean partner. Do you have any insight into the relationship between the two groups?
The South Korean government classifies CCRFC as a civilian-run nongovernmental organization that deals with the outside world. However, CCRFC is actually a pseudo-espionage organization engaging in operations for the North Korean government under the guise of civilian exchange. The CCRFC was initially a separate entity but merged under the UFD in the early 2000s. It is more like a spy agency, while UFD is focused more on community building with pro-North Korea groups.
CCRFC’s main task is to groom spies in South Korea, Japan and America who can carry out pro-North work on the ground as well as provide information to Pyongyang. It is likely that many of those engaged in such pro-North work are themselves unaware of this, and that North Koreans have brainwashed and won them over.
Also, in spite of how short of money North Korea is, CCRFC and other spy organizations have no limitations on how they use money. In the past, they received money from the party, but now they make and use their own money. The department is not tasked with raising money for the regime.
Edited by Bryan Betts
Updated Lee’s biographical information at 10:48 a.m. on Dec. 9, 2021.
Alek Sigley is a PhD student at Stanford University's Modern Thought and Literature program, where he is writing a dissertation on North Korea. From 2018-2019 he studied for a master's degree in contemporary North Korean fiction at Kim Il Sung University's College of Literature. He speaks Mandarin, Korean and Japanese. Follow him on Twitter @AlekSigley.