Kim Joo-Il was captain of the North Korean military until his defection in 2005. In mid-June, in an exclusive interview I got to talk to him in Bonn, neighbouring Germany. At first glance, he seemed easily approachable and friendly unlike the stern military demeanour one would expect of a former captain. He told me about his risky flight from the country and about the family he left behind. He recalls, “It was very dangerous for me to share my thoughts with my family. “I planned my defection alone and very secretively.” He adds that his biggest regret is not telling his parents his plans to escape. “I didn’t even say goodbye to them,” he ends in a forlorn voice.
Mr Kim observes that in North Korea, anyone who views the regime suspiciously or asks questions is considered to be a “political criminal.” He adds that such persons may be labelled as the “main enemy”; a term normally reserved for nations such as South Korea, the United States and Japan. “For a soldier it may be worse if suspected of such,” he muses “they can be put to death on the spot without even receiving a trial.”
Kim Joo-Il remembers his turning point and the moment he decided to leave North Korea.
From 1997 to 2000, North Korea had a bad economic crisis and up to three million of his countrymen died of starvation. The effects were even felt in the military; many soldiers suffered during the famine and ended up running away. Thirty percent of them starved to death. “At that point” - Kim Joo-Il narrates, “after learning in school and in my childhood that North Korea was one of the wealthiest countries - I asked myself, how can people starve to death in such a well-off country like North Korea?”
In 2005, his first entry point outside the country was China. He says that, “As an officer, I had the privilege of taking a vacation. After the daughter of my sister died of starvation, I decided to escape.” He got to the border of North Korea, to the river by train. He took a full four hours to cross the river, one step at a time. He deems himself lucky not to have been caught at the time. When he arrived in China initially it was difficult as at the time China had an arrangement with North Korea to deport any migrants back. He then went on to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, finally reaching the United Kingdom in 2007 after two years in Thailand. He has lived in London since the time and works for an organization in the UK, The Free NK Newspaper, for the promotion of human rights in North Korea.
Speaking at the conference organized by the International Society for Human Rights (ISHR); Mr Kim states that education is key to breaking free from the regime. He notes that North Koreans grow up with brainwashing education in a completely closed society from the moment they are born to the moment they die. The first word they learn is “Thank you Great Leader Kim II- Sung,” “thank you Great General Kim Jong-II” and not “mummy” or “daddy.” Sixty percent of the school education is on the idolization of Kim’s family. Mr Kim adds that “Such education on deification and idolization is so intense and thorough that kids know very well of Kim II- Sung’s great grandparents even if they do not know the name of their own.” In North Korea there are separate subjects called, “History of Kim II-Sung’s revolution” and “Kim Jong-II’s revolutionary activities.” These are taught from the age of five to nursery level and they are the most important subjects, hence every household tends to emphasize on idolization and deification as well. North Korean education is to nurture students to become absolutely loyal to the dictator. It is also written in the North Korean constitution clause 43 and ‘Party’s only ideology 10 principles’ that every North Korean must follow.
He continues to say that North Korea is a military regime, the society has been closed up for over 70 years and it is difficult to accept any outside information or messages; everything from the outside world is deemed to be a lie. Kim Joo-Il believes that messages from fellow North Koreans living abroad would be readily acceptable by the North Koreans living within the country. To this end he normally works on sending flyers and broadcasting messages family and friends to those in North Korea to effect mind-set change in North Korea, that the people may stand up for their rights.
The country is one of the poorest yet militarized countries in the world with a leadership believed to live a life of luxury while the people suffer. A recent United Nations report classified 7.2 million of the 24 million population as “chronic poor “and said that one in three children were stunted due to poor nutrition. The country has been described by outside organizations as a “totalitarian, Stalinist dictatorship with an elaborate cult of personality around the Kim family and one of the lowest-ranking human rights records of any country.” Worthy of mention is that with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the country lost a major trading partner and strategic ally.
Little has changed under the new rule of North Korea, Kim Jong-un who took power last December following the demise of his father. He recently let go of North Korea’s military chief and made other changes in the military making analysts speculate that he would want to have tighter reins on the state’s powerful military.