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Author Topic: What has been the biggest surprise since you left North Korea? Defector survey  (Read 1826 times)
Chef Ramsay
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May 20, 2014, 10:58:26 PM

I've always been fascinated by those that go through the mental hell and anxiety that one must face to flee the NK border and go meander from China to Thailand where they refugee status and then get flown to Seoul to start their new life. It must be hard for any of us to comprehend what life is like in the DPRK and all the strict socialism, propaganda (well, not so much), Kim idolization, strict state policing that can end someone or their relatives into slave labor or education camps (currently about ~200k North Koreans) where they're brutally beaten, assaulted, starved, worked to death, fed next to nothing, etc. Then to get new opinions on their current views of their fatherland's state of the union is quite intriguing. Keep in mind, most of these defectors are coming out of the cold war 50s-70s mindsets into the bright lights and tall buildings of 21st century Seoul, most of whom are separated from family for the rest of their lives and thus feeling quite lonely. So, hope you enjoy the cross-posted commentary with all of the former in mind.

Execution of Jang Song Thaek, growth of cell phone network, and emergence of middle class, among factors
From the execution of Jang Song Thaek last December to the death of Kim Jong Il two years prior, it’s safe to say that the past few years have witnessed some of the most significant changes in North Korea in decades. But while rumors about Kim Jong Il’s poor health had been swirling since 2008, the rapid purge and execution of Jang Song Thaek showed just how unpredictable events in North Korea can be.

But of course, beyond these major stories broken by North Korean state media, other events and phenomena have occurred that could also have significant impact in the future. From the rise and acceptance of the market economy,to the spread of cell phone technology, to an increasingly affluent middle class, a number of bottom-up changes are occurring in North Korea that could one day have game-changing ramifications.

For the final article in our defector survey, we therefore asked our panel of eleven refugees to tell us what the biggest surprise has been in the way North Korea has developed since they left the country. While many of the responses echo observations made by long-time North Korea watchers such as Andrei Lankov and Victor Cha, some of the refugee respondents were very vocal about pointing out that there had been little, if any, meaningful changes worth talking about.


Defector "Hyun-Moo Jung"
I watched a documentary about North Korea on KBS (a major South Korean broadcasting service) in February. Throughout the documentary, the narrator kept saying that there have been many changes in North Korea in recent years. But in my opinion, the country hasn’t changed a bit.

It was ludicrous for the narrator to say that changes have come in North Korea. Actually, the only change in North Korea is that there’s an even greater economic gap between the haves and have-nots.

The economic gap between rich and poor wasn’t that bad when I was in North Korea. If you had one million dollars, you’d be considered one of the richest people in the country. But now most party officials and traders who are abroad have at least 10 million dollars. Despite these new riches, the have-nots are still suffering from abject poverty and there’s a growing number of kotchebi (꽃제비 – homeless children).

It ached my heart to see a poverty-stricken North Korea on the documentary and I wanted to tell the producers that actually nothing has changed in North Korea. Change is never possible in North Korea. As long as Kim Jong Un’s family is in power, it is an undeniable truth that there’ll be no change ever in North Korea.

Don’t you dare to say that change has come in North Korea. That is what this defector would like to yell at the entire world.

Defector "Jimin Kang"
Well…in my opinion, North Korea has not changed all that much since I left. I am actually baffled by how it has regressed.

For any President, the first thing he would do after being elected would be to carry out policies to generate people’s support. But in the case of North Korea, Kim Jong Un started his administration with public executions and military threats toward the South.

In other words, he already knows that it’s impossible to convincing the people to support his cause. Because to get the people’s support would require economic progress, and economic progress would be impossible without reform and opening up.

Kim Jong Un is not someone who is capable of carrying out reform. It’s surprising how North Korea’s political elites fail to see their future, and fail to see the people’s sentiments.

Another thing that has surprised me is that the internal power struggles in North Korea have become so acute that they are now visible from the outside world. The current situation in North Korea – with the public execution of his uncle Jang Song Thaek and the public release of this news – is quite unprecedented. That also means that things are quite urgent there.

You can also sense change through the expressionless faces of the North Korean people right after Kim Jong Ils death. This is no comparison to what happened with Kim Il Sung’s death. The people’s tears for Kim Il-sung were tears of absolute support and sorrow. But when Kim Jong Il died, the people were neither devasted nor stricken with grief. This is just one instance of how much the people themselves have changed.

Youth highway in DPRK

Defector "Soon Kyung Hong"
It has been 13 years since I left North Korea. In this time, the most surprising change I have seen has been the vitalization of the market economy in North Korea – and the public’s increasing dependence on it.

The market economy has developed significantly, to an unimaginable point at the time when I was there. As such, the North Korean people’s dependence to the government is decreasing every day. This means that the control of the North Korean regime is weakening day by day.

“The most surprising change I have seen has been the vitalization of the market economy in North Korea”
Also, I have heard that North Korean people, in private settings, increasingly complain or share their true thoughts about the regime. This was all unimaginable when I was in North Korea.

Defector "Mina Yoon"
It is very hard to think of any major changes in North Korea since I left. However, I can tell from the execution of Jang Song Thaek that the regime is unstable compared to the Kim Jong Il-era.

When Jang was executed I thought to myself, “Kim Jong Un must have worried so much that he had to execute his own uncle.” I could also tell from what happened that there was a group in the regime that was opposed to Jang Song Thaek. They might feel safer now that Jang Song Thaek is gone. But those elites won’t be as loyal as before.

Beyond the politics, I’m surprised by how quickly cell phones are spreading in North Korea. In the past, I wondered when I’d be finally able to own a cell phone. But now many people in North Korea own and use cell phones. I heard that rich North Koreans even use touch phones. They also use tablet PCs. This would have been something inconceivable for all of us even a few years ago.

If North Koreans are ever allowed to use the internet freely and communicate with people in other countries, changes will come to North Korea much more quickly.

More @

Mini-Dubai in Downtown Pyongyang

What interior Pyongyang really looks like

The shape of most cities/towns in DPRK
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