North Korea, officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, is a country in East Asia, in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang is both the nation's capital as well as its largest city. To the north and northwest the country is bordered by China and by Russia along the Amnok and Tumen rivers.
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My name is Park Il Hwan and I am a North Korean defector who is working on the activist movement for "information dissemination." I settled in South Korea in 2001 and I majored in law at Korea University. My father gave me a dream. This was a difficult dream to bear while under the North Korean regime. He said, "If you leave this wretched country of the Kims and go find your grandfather in the U.S., he'll at least educate you." "The dream of studying with blue-eyed friends" was a thought that always made me happy. Enmeshed in this dream, I escaped North Korea all alone without a single relative. This was something my dad had said to my 15-year-old self after having a drink, but this seed of a "dream" became embedded deeply in my mind, and as the years went by, it grew so strongly that I couldn't help but bring it to action. I thought carefully about why I wanted this so desperately to risk my life. The words of my father that "changed my consciousness" was "information about the outside world." The genuine solution to the North Korean issue is the "change of consciousness" of the North Korean people. To resolve the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons, there may be different opinions between the Democrat and Republican parties, but despite the change in administration, "information dissemination" in North Korea is a movement that must continuously go on. When looking at issues of Muslim refugees or ISIS that show the appearances of clash of civilizations, the above can be said with even more conviction. In the end, even if a totalitarian regime is removed, if there is no "change in consciousness" of the people as a foundation, diplomatic approaches or military methods to remove a regime are not solutions for the root issue. The change that I experienced through the "information dissemination" that we do to send in USBs or SD cards to North Korea, thus the "change of consciousness" among the North Korean people, must be established first as a foundation. Please refer to the link below to find out more details about our "information dissemination" work. On Wednesday, December 7th from 10AM - 11AM KST (Tuesday, December 6th 8PM - 9PM EST), I'll be answering your questions. Thank you.
What was the moment when you realized, now or never, this is my chance to go?
When I was 18, just after I took a physical exam for military service, I was scared because at that time military service was 12 years, so I knew I would not be able to come back home until I was 30 years old. I started to dream about leaving when I was 15 but I knew I had to leave at age 18. My family background was also bad, because my grandfather lived in the U.S., so even if I had gone to the military, I would not have been able to become a party member, so I had no choice but to follow my dream.
North Korea has a very negative reputation but I am wondering, in your personal opinion, is there anything good about the country?
Because collective action and lifestyles are so important, people don't use the word 'loneliness' very much. Although it is in the dictionary, it is not a word that people use to describe their daily life. So North Korean people do not have time to be lonely and in my experience, there is very little depression or suicide in North Korea caused by loneliness.
How did you get out of the country?
I lived further south from Pyongyang, so I if I wanted to go to a border town, I had to pass through Pyongyang. There is a city a little bit North of Pyongyang called Pyongsong. From Pyongsong, I got on the train from Pyongyang to Onsung. It is too hard to get travel permission in Pyongyang, so I boarded in Pyongsong. My train was delayed approximately 15 days. It was so full that people were riding on the roof of the train because no one knew how long it would take until the next train. If you weren't careful you could get electrocuted by the power lines above the train, or fall off the train. If that happened, the train would just keep going. I saw someone get electrocuted, so I left the roof and squeezed into the train. I got off at Namyoung (a city on the border before Onsung). I spent a night in Namyoung and one in Onsung and I crossed the river at night. It was December, so the river was frozen. I hid in a warehouse on the border and waited until night to cross.
Did you ever second guess yourself when escaping?
and What do you think the punishment would have been if you got caught?
I imagined every possible punishment. Being shot in front of the girl I had a crush on, humiliated in front of my entire hometown. After having taken a train that was delayed for 15 days, I couldn't do anything but go forward. Once I committed to taking that train, I did not think there was any way for me to go other than forward because I had already come so far, and getting as far as I had once I stepped off that train was too difficult for me to turn back.
Aside from your family, is there anything you miss about North Korea?
I miss my friends, especially spending the summers swimming and fishing with my hometown friends. I also miss ice skating on the river all day. I miss the natural fun of my childhood in North Korea
Is your family okay? Ive heard things like they torture defectors familys for generations to come. How close is this statement to the truth?
Normal defectors' families are not usually targeted. For a family to be sent to a prison or work camp, usually the defector has to be of political significance or have committed espionage or have escaped to practice Christianity. As long as your family doesn't admit that you defected they are usually fine. If you just say your child disappeared, I do not believe punishments are frequently given.
What are your dreams for your home country? Do you think things can/will change? Do you worry about your safety now that you're out? Thanks for doing this AMA!
My dream for North Korea is that it can be unified with South Korea and that all North Koreans can undergo the same change of consciousness that I did. And that is why I believe the work I am doing sending information is so important. I believe that the information we are sending to North Korea will help facilitate that change.
Since I left North Korea and came to South Korea, I have not worried for my safety. I feel safe here, and I am not afraid. Thank you for your great questions!
How long did it take you to escape? I imagine you walking and hiding for days outside a barbed wire fence waiting for the right moment. Was it anything like that?
How long do you think the regime will be able to hang on to their strangle hold over the country? It is my hope that cracks are beginning to appear.
I've already answered your first question in previous comments, but to address the second question, there are three generations of North Koreans. The first generations escaped because of ideological differences, the second generation escaped because of hardship and the third generation because of change of consciousness and access to information. This third generation proves that people are getting information from the outside world, which I believe is a critical step toward the end of the Kim regime. If you look at defectors this year, about 70% of them are elite or high ranking officials. These are the same people who stayed when the second generation left, but, now because their thoughts are changing and even these people who used to support the regime are leaving, I do not believe that the North Korean regime will last too much longer.
Does the average North Korean person know what rough shape their country is in, and understand that things are much better in many other places?
Also, what was the biggest culture shock you faced when you arrived in South Korea?
North Korea seems like a wreck, but there is a reason to continue surviving the Kim regime. Average North Koreans living in the heart of the country still cheer on the Kim family, but people living close to the border are more aware of the situation that the country is in, because they have the most access to outside information.
As for the second question, I lived in hiding in Shenyang, China for 2 years, so my first experience with culture shock was in China. There was a train station called Yuanji train station. When you leave the station there is a big square. When I first arrived there was a poster of a model wearing a bikini and a fur coat and high heels and red lipstick. It was an ad for the fur coat, and for me that was the most provocative image I had ever seen before. I looked at the ground the entire time I walked past that ad because I was too embarrassed to look at the ad.
How was the topic of defection treated in North Korea, who did you discuss this with apart from your father, was it dangerous or punishable to discuss, and what seems to be the general consensus of the everyday North Korean toward their national situation in public and private?
The difference between people living along the border and people living within the heart of the country is very large. People living in the heart of the country do not even use the word defector, instead they use more demeaning terms like 'run-away.' More than 90% of defectors have come from the border towns.
I only discussed escaping with my father because it was to dangerous to mention to anyone else. If the security agency asked my father about my disappearance, he would say he didn't know, and that I just disappeared because being related to a defector is dangerous.
In the border towns, people are very aware of the situation that North Korea is in both economically and politically. In the heart of the country however, people blame hardships on U.S. imperialism and sanctions. In other words, every one knows that living in North Korea is difficult, but people with greater access to media beyond that provided by the state, are more aware that the North Korean government has played a role in causing their suffering.
When you were training to be integrated to South Korea, what did they teach you?
I graduated high school in North Korea, but when I came to South Korea I started over as junior in high school. I just attended a regular high school in South Korea, and when I graduated I enrolled in college.
How did you manage when you first left North Korea? Where and how did you live? Is North Korean currency valid in South Korea? Was there any difference in the way you were treated in South Korea, maybe some level of adoration or avoidance by your classmates?
When I first left North Korea, I lived in China. My father prepared me to leave and gave me connections in China as well as information to get me in touch with my grandfather in the U.S.
Until Kim Jong-Il, since 1995 until now, North Korea has redone its currency 3 times. Everytime this happens, the government takes money from the citizens. The banking system is not well used, so in order to control inflation, the government had to remake its money and invalidate the old currency frequently. Because of this in illegal markets, as well as abroad, people have lost faith in North Korean currency and prefer to use U.S. Dollars or Chinese Yuan. When I left, although I had North Korean money, I threw it away when I got to the border towns because I was afraid it would get me caught.
When I arrived in South Korea, because I opened myself up and started to approach people, they mostly treated me well.
How true are the media and stereotypes on North Korea? Is North Korea as messed up as we know or is there some fault or a possibility that hate against North Korea is a result of Western "propaganda"? Considering the fact that North Korea is highly isolated, how can we be certain of the things we "know"?
Most of what is shown in the media about North Korea is based on facts, for example the people are starving and living in an information blackout. Even if what you see in the media is, to some extent propaganda, because the west has much freer access to information, comparing sources and checking facts make it easy to confirm what you know.
Unfortunately, this is the last question we have time for today! Thank you to everyone for participating, and hopefully we will be able to have another AMA to answer more of your questions soon!
How easy/difficult is it to get information into the country? And what methods do you use? It also seems to me that it would be quite difficult for the average north Korean to have free access to computers/devices that can read the data without putting themselves in serious jeopardy so how do you go about this?
Thanks for doing an AMA it is an incredibly interesting topic and I hope your work pays off
The hardest part is dealing with North Korean security agents. The security agents are very good at their jobs, which makes sending information without getting caught difficult. We usually distribute information in illegal marketplaces on USBs, SD cards, DVDs and CDs because you can access the information on them without any internet access, and people just need computers or smartphones to view the contents. In the past we have also distributed radios. We have done a survey in North Korea and about 3 million people have access to computers, however distributing USBs and SD cards to the heart of North Korea is still much harder than it is to distribute them in the border towns. Additionally, the majority of people with computer access live in the border towns, so our biggest challenge is still to provide people living in the heart of the country with outside information.
How long can the current regime continue to isolate itself from the outside world? How many years do you think it will be until North Korea will be free? Will such change come through outside military intervention or an internal revolution by the people?
Because of the state of international politics, an outside military intervention seems unlikely, and an internal revolution will not be possible until North Koreans' consciousness changes and the people realize what the outside world really is like. No one knows when the regime will end, but this regime cannot last forever.
What sort of information? News from around the world? Videos of The Trailer Park Boys? (note: Apparently the Boys from Sunnybrook Trailer Park are a hit in South Korea). News that the Donald will turn North Korea into a layer of glass if Supreme Leader fucks around?
We send movies and tv-shows from both the U.S. and South Korea. We also send documentaries and an offline Wikipedia. Everything we send is meant to show what daily life and government and economic systems outside North Korea look like. As far as the Trailer Park Boys go, I do not believe we have sent that to North Korea yet, but we will definitely look into it! As far as Trump is concerned, because his presidency has not yet started, and it takes time to compile information to send to North Korea, we have not yet sent anything relating to Trump.