The Future of North Korea

HIR Issue: 
Youth on Fire

As the world watched footage of Kim Jong-il's funeral, many were asking whether the emotions North Koreans displayed on camera were at all genuine. In your experience, what proportion of North Koreans are genuine devotees of the leadership?

In 2011, when Kim Jong-il died, most of the footage released by the regime showed dozens of North Koreans crying. But the regime can choose what they show to the world.

In 1994, Kim Il-sung died. Maybe this is because I was young, but I felt that many people were sad and sincerely crying. When Kim Jong-il died, the atmosphere was very different. Even when I was in North Korea, many people showed their disaffection with the regime. In North Korea, up to 3 million people have died from starvation, and many more have gone to jail or have been publicly executed. So there is almost no one who has not lost a family member. Through these actions the regime broke the trust of the people, and when I was still there people had started thinking about change. They were afraid to discuss it in public, but privately they did discuss it. The oppression continued, and the popularity and credibility of the regime plummeted.

So I think many people, after Kim Jong-il died, did not cry sincerely; I think they were forced. I talked to a source in North Korea the day after his death, and he informed me that many North Koreans did not start crying until the day after they heard of Kim’s death. If their feelings had been sincere, then they would have started crying straight away. And just by looking very closely at the news footage of the events, you can tell that although some people seemed to be crying, their expressions do not reflect grief and pain.

Let’s talk about your organization, Now Action and Unity for Human Rights (NAUH). Briefly, what is its mission and what does it do?

NAUH is an organization working to promote the rights of North Koreans. NAUH is composed particularly of students from North and South Korea and from oversees. Our focus is to induce and prepare for change inside North Korea.

To do this, we want to touch the feelings of the North Korean people. Many people in the North have a very good impression of the regime because the state media has appealed to their emotions. Every Saturday we hold a demonstration in downtown Seoul to help inform Korean society about the atrocities taking place in North Korea as well as our activities. We have recently signed a contract with Radio Free Asia to broadcast our message to North Korea. Every Thursday we have our own 20-minute program where the students talk about a variety of issues, from their schoolwork to democracy and freedom.

Since last year we’ve also started looking at ways to help defecting women, who are the most vulnerable victims of human trafficking.

What is it that you would really like the world to know about the situation in North Korea today?

That nothing’s changed after Kim Jong-il’s death. There are still public concentration camps, there are still prisons, there are still public executions, they are still shooting at the defectors, and there is still starvation.

After Kim Jong-il, it seems that all countries are hoping for a peaceful succession. I was shocked to see this language being used because this is a perpetuation of the same regime that is torturing people. Nothing has changed in terms of human rights violations.

We must respect the North Korean people and their rights, so our response to Kim’s death must be based on the principle of respect for the opinions and the human rights of those same people.

Do you see any possibility of a liberalization of North Korean society under the leadership of Kim Jong-un?

There are many speculations, but I think they are just speculations. Think about Kim Jong-un’s roots: he is only 28 but he nonetheless became the Supreme Leader of North Korea. There are many elites and powerful people in North Korea, but Kim Jong-un inherited his power from his grandfather and father. He inherited the power from the idolization of his family. Because of this, his legitimacy lies in the legacy of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung – he even tries to imitate his grandfather’s image. North Korea is under the system of legacy rule, so Kim Jong-un must and is inheriting the system of his father: a system of oppression. So how can we expect liberalization? I think expecting Kim Jong-un to reform is unthinkable, and under his government, there is no possibility of liberalization.

What would you like to see China, South Korea, and Western nations do to further the cause of human rights in North Korea?

The influence of China is very important. North Korean people have a very strong impression of the power of the Chinese government. In 2002, when Kim Jong-il suspended public executions because of pressure from the Chinese government, the North Koreans who thought that Kim Jong-il was the most powerful man on the planet realized that this is not true.

Because of this potential influence, it is first necessary that China and the rest of the world cooperate in protecting the human rights of North Koreans, particularly those of defectors to China. Everyone is entitled to their God-given rights in life, and we must follow this principle. Second, the countries of the world must unite as a single voice to force the North Korean government to moderate. And third, they must work to inform the North Korean people of the existence of a better world, where they can achieve their dreams, enjoy human rights, and truly live their lives.

Do you think a revolution will ever happen in North Korea? If so, how and when do you foresee it unfolding?

I think it is possible. A method would be to motivate the people to rise against the regime. The most important thing is the conflict of interest between the people and the regime. For 99 percent of people, the powerful elite do not represent the public interest. Because of the regime’s failure to show that it cares about the people, the people have no trust in it. They are looking for opportunities to bring about change.

In Syria, there is a wave of democratization that threatens to bring down the regime, and many people wonder why this is not the case in North Korea. I think the foundation for revolution can be found in North Korea, because of the lack of democratization and the way the government has alienated the people. Since the change of leadership in 1994, I think people have started to understand that change is possible. In 2008, when the North Korean government closed the markets, businesspeople, and workers protested against the government. In North Korea, this was viewed as a very serious crime. The people want to break their chains.

The North Korean authorities, such as the military, have oppressive orders from the political elite. But these orders are so unrepresentative of the political reality that they must eventually be broken. Our organization is helping the North Koreans to prepare and be ready for that action against the regime, and I think that the power of the people’s voice, combined with conflict within the military, can create revolution in North Korea.