Here’s an interesting fact to confirm the regime’s plans to divert the aid for the outset: When the famine was at its height in the 1990s, and when the world community decided they were going to send humanitarian aid to North Korea, the regime required that the people who were delivering the aid not speak Korean.
So they can’t talk to the people. They can’t find out what’s going on.
Exactly. They wanted to be able to control the people who were delivering the aid. So no Korean speakers allowed. That’s the reverse of what you would ever want if you really cared about your people.
Another aspect of North Korea that sets it apart: It is a crime punishable by death to leave the country without permission. That’s just terrifying.
The U.N. Commission of Inquiry concluded in February 2014 that North Korea does not have any parallel in the contemporary world for their human rights violations. The U.N. COI did interviews with hundreds of defectors and came to the exact same conclusion as what all of us were saying in the human rights movement: North Korea is the world’s worst human rights tragedy.
Why do you think China collaborates with North Korea to hunt down and arrest refugees?
That is an extremely good question, because China is so key in all of this. I believe they would rather have a fellow dictatorship on their border than a unified and free Korea. They continue to prop up the regime. One of the ways to do that is to control the people who are trying to escape. China and North Korea are in close collaboration. It actually intensified when Kim Jong Il died. The Kim Jong Un regime was afraid more people would escape. So they intensified the border to prevent people from escaping. If the regime did collapse, I think China fears that they would be infiltrated by refugees. What I point out to the Chinese is that they want North Korea to take on Chinese-style reforms. China has encouraged North Korea: “Why don’t you open up to more markets like we’ve done? We’re still a Communist country, but our people are doing so much better. Why don’t you do the same thing?” North Korea won’t do that.
The North Koreans have always had the policy of block the “yellow wind.” North Korea is racist against the Chinese. If a North Korean woman gets repatriated back to North Korea from China and she’s pregnant, the North Koreans force her to abort the baby because it’s half Chinese. That’s a racist policy. We ask the Chinese, “Why are you propping up this dictatorship that’s committing crimes against humanity, that’s racist against the Chinese people, that refuses to accept your recommendations on reforms? You are relieving North Korea of the pressure that could be made to make them adopt Chinese-style reforms.”
What would happen if the North Korea regime collapsed and Korea unified? You would have an economic boom in that region. China would benefit economically because North Korea would be free to develop. They have a terrible infrastructure. They need railroads. They need electricity. It could be a huge boon to the economy. Also, the Chinese don’t want American troops there, but those troops are only at the DMZ because of the threat from North Korea.
We could make many arguments with the Chinese Communist government about this, but they continue to support the dictatorship in North Korea. However, the Chinese citizens are on our side in this issue. The Chinese citizens who know about this issue don’t see South Korea as a threat. They see the tremendous, robust trade relationship South Korea and China have. They know South Korea is the future. They’re embarrassed that their government keeps bailing out this dictatorship that is loathed by the world community and committing crimes against humanity.
Finally, we point out to the Chinese government, by supporting this regime, that they are complicit in crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, the Communist government in China would rather have a fellow Communist leader, a totalitarian state, rather than a democracy. That shows you the poor judgment the government of China has. They want to be seen as a world leader. Instead, they’re causing terrible instability in Asia. It’s going to get worse because South Korea is going to develop the missile defense system, and China is totally against that. But the only reason why South Korea wants to develop a missile defense is because of North Korea’s nuclear threat. If Kim Jong Un wasn’t threatening South Korea, they would have no interest in developing a nuclear defense.
Can you talk about the underground economy in North Korea, and how it works as a market-based culture to undermine the regime?
The amazing thing about the market economy is that it’s a testament to the power of the human spirit, capitalism and self-determination. The North Korean people created this economy themselves. It shows the resilience of the North Korean people as well as the power of free enterprise. When the Public Distribution System broke down, whereby food and material goods were distributed according to your Songbun classification, the North Korean people saved themselves from a system whereby everything came down from the great dictator who bestowed upon you all your needs.
The distribution system broke down because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the lack of support coming in, aggravated by the famine, which was partially triggered by the regime’s agricultural policy. Also, the collective farms were failing to produce.
There’s a North Korean defector, Lee Min Bok, who was an agricultural specialist. During the time of the famine he went around the country to look at how the farms were functioning. He put together a report for the “dear leader,” Kim Jong Il. He said, “I see that the collective farms are not performing as well as the private farms. If we privatize more farms, we will be able to avert famine.” He turned that report in and he was called in for a meeting with higher-ups in the regime. He thought he was going to get a reward. But his friend said, “Don’t go. You’re about to get arrested because you have questioned Kim Jong Il’s policies through your report. You’re going to be sent to a political prison camp.” So he fled. Any doubt against the regime will lead to imprisonment.
What happened when the PDS system collapsed and millions of North Koreans were starving? The North Korean people started trading among themselves.
I know a woman who was a teacher, Eom Myung Hui. The system couldn’t support her teaching anymore because the whole education system collapsed as well. She was able to connect with a South Korean trader and they set up a business together. They would import seafood. Then she would go to one part of the country and trade to make money. People would use whatever means they could to try to survive.
There were over 200 steady markets that were regularly functioning. The regime tried in vain to control the market. First it said, “Ok, we’ll allow you to have the markets, but only women over 35 can use the markets.” Then they changed and said, “Ok, if you’re 25 or older you can use the markets.” They tried to restrict it, but the people were starving, and with these markets they were making money, and they were finding out how to survive on their own. So these markets continued to spread. Because of the famine, people had started to lose faith in the regime and they realized that the most important thing was to make money. That was the only way you could feed your family.
In 2009, a very critical thing happened. The regime realized that it couldn’t control this anymore. They could not put the toothpaste back in the tube. So they decided to devalue the currency and create a new currency. The people would have to trade in their money for the new currency. But something happened that had never happened before in the whole history of North Korea. There was such an uproar because this was not just the hostile class, this was the wavering and the loyal class; they were all up in arms. The regime thought, “We better do something or we’re going to have a revolution.” So they backed off. They blamed one of the leaders in the regime. They executed Pak Nam Gi and made him the scapegoat. I’ve heard it was Kim Jong Un who came up with this idea; certainly Kim Jong Il instituted it. They had this guy shot and killed, and they did something they have never done in their nearly 70-year history—they actually apologized and let the markets function. Now the elites are all involved in all these markets and there are plenty of material goods in Pyongyang that the elites have access to.