PYONGYANG — By controlling the flow of information into and out of the country, North Korea remains one of the most isolationist countries in the world. However, eyewitness testimonies from defectors reveal what goes on inside North Korea and the journeys undertaken to escape the oppressive regime.
In an interview with Asian Boss, a YouTube channel focused on cultural and social education, Sunny and an unidentified male explain their experiences inside North Korea. Sunny recounts the horrific famine that occurred in the ’90s, which condemned two-thirds of her village to die of starvation. In the same interview, the man vividly explains how a two-year-old girl starved to death in front of him. He says that experience is engraved in his memory forever. At age 12, he witnessed his first public execution of an unpaid miner. The miner stole rope from the government to feed his family. Sunny explains that anyone under 12 cannot watch these executions, but the law requires anyone over 12 to watch them.
North Koreans accept these events as norms; the Kim regime tightly regulates the flow of information to maintain this culture. The country’s state-controlled education facilitates behaviors and beliefs by which children learn to worship their leader. In an interview with the Financial Times, Hyeonseo Lee explains that her mother refuses to believe that North Korea started the Korean War.
In tandem with both the disintegration of the Soviet Union and many natural disasters, the North Korean famine of the ’90s killed close to one million people and forced many to find alternative methods of survival outside of state-sponsored resources. For the first time, North Koreans ventured into China and engaged in private enterprise. The surprising reality that other countries lived in freedom and prosperity shocked them. In the ’90s, many North Koreans defected to escape starvation. The man interviewed by Asian Boss suggests that today, younger North Koreans are escaping to find freedom.
Escaping North Korea is risky and dangerous, even with the expensive help of a vast underground network of smugglers and handlers. If caught, defectors and their families can be sentenced to death or a lifetime of servitude in the country’s harsh labor camps.
North Korea requires travel passes for interstate travel inside the country, and one defection method requires obtaining an approved endorsement number. If defectors are unable to obtain this number, they must cover long distances while passing through multiple security checkpoints. If they are fortunate enough to successfully navigate this route, the real escape begins. They must cross the Tumen River where guards are stationed throughout and hidden border patrol agents wait to ambush unsuspecting defectors.
Many escape by walking on the frozen river during the winter nights. Some defectors freeze to death while navigating the cold waters of the Tumen River. They must also successfully pass Chinese checkpoints where Chinese guards perform selective inspections. After avoiding detection throughout the many checkpoints along this route, vulnerable defectors arrive in China.
China is equally dangerous for defectors, as its government maintains friendly relations with North Korea. If Chinese authorities catch defectors, they immediately send them back to North Korea to face harsh punishments or execution. More commonly, North Korean women become sex slaves or mail-order brides after their smugglers trick them.
Lee So-Yeon was captured in northern China and was condemned to 13 days of starvation and physical brutalization. Her cell reeked of her own excrement and her guards constantly kicked her unconscious. During her year of imprisonment, she learned how her fellow North Korean women were sold to give birth against their will. After escaping on foot across the frozen Yalu River at age 17, Hyeonseo Lee survived abusive Chinese pimps, gangsters, marriage suitors, informers and police interrogators. She also escaped servitude from a brothel in China and extracted her family from a prison in Laos. A woman named Geum-hee explains how North Korean agents caught her and forced an abortion injection into her. Today, her child suffers from cerebral palsy and cannot walk.
Recently, a source for the South China Morning Post conjectured that weakening ties between North Korea and China may have played a role in a defector’s successful escape. The inflows of information have disrupted North Korea’s oppressive regime. Sunny explains that North Koreans crave information about the outside world. Merchants bring smuggled flash drives and pirated CDs into North Korea, allowing people to watch famous South Korean dramas in hiding. But only after locking the doors, turning off the lights and putting a blanket over the TV.
Thae Yong Ho, a defector who was a top diplomat inside North Korea, argues that the country “feels oppressive” because of censorship. He argues that increasing the flow of information into North Korea can sow seeds of popular discord among North Koreans to revolt against the Kim regime. The advent of technology has allowed information to impact ordinary people as well as the elite. It weakens the Kim regime’s grip on the flow of information. Through shared information, North Koreans suddenly discovered that situations in Africa were better than situations inside North Korea.
Like many successful defectors, the consequences of Ho’s escape will likely be passed down to family members who currently reside in North Korea. Despite this, Ho continues to support the increase of outside information into North Korea.
Towards the end of her interview, Sunny explains that North Korean people are happy. She says, “They laugh a lot.” Although the country is poor, people care for one another. In many ways, outside information has changed the way some North Koreans live their lives. The man in Asian Boss’s interview acknowledges the outside world’s biased view of the North Korean people. He explains that North Korea’s young people have dreams and are thirsty for freedom. He reminds the rest of the world that people are still people — even inside North Korea.
– Andy Jung