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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

North Korea - Beautiful Country or Auschwitz?

North Korean Work Camps Are “Another Form of Auschwitz,” Says Former Child Prisoner in Brutally Revealing AMA

Before his escape, Kang Chol-hwan listened to the radio in secret for more than a year. Now a journalist, author, and activist, he knows what really threatens the North Korean government: giving citizens access to information.

Photo by Michael Wilkinson
Photo by Michael Wilkinson
It’s a simple USB stick, much like the one you probably have sitting somewhere at the bottom of your backpack. But to the people in North Korea receiving it, the tiny device may provide their only glimpse into the outside world.
In the reclusive state, citizens have no access to the Internet and only one TV channel, which is run by the government. The state-controlled media has told its people that North Korea has discovered a cure for cancer and AIDS, that Kim Jong Il invented the hamburger and that country is rated the “happiest place on Earth.”
The real picture is much more bleak. A 2014 United Nations report found evidence of mass starvation, public executions, torture, forced abortions, slavery and “disappearance of persons” in the rigidly stratified society.
A man named Kang Chol-hwan is fighting the rigid regime with something he knows it fears: information. More specifically—getting it into the hands of its citizens.
His team at the North Korea Strategy Center, where he is the executive director, is loading up USB sticks with Hollywood movies and documentaries, Korean dramas, eBooks, newspapers on PDFs and an offline wikipedia, and smuggling them into North Korea. (According to the organization’s program officerThe Hunger Games and Desperate Housewives are a couple favored shows.) From 2008 through 2015, the organization has sent 18,500 USBs, along with DVDs and small radios, into the country.
fundraising campaign has been launched to help them send 6,000 more in six months. The mission of the North Korea Strategy Center is to advocate for free media and press in North Korea.
Kang was a child prisoner at Yodok political prison camp in North Korea, sent there with his family after his grandfather was accused of treason by the Kim regime. He recalls constructing a building out of clay when he was 10 years old:
“… there were dozens of kids, and while digging the ground, it collapsed, and they died. And the bodies were crushed flat. And they buried the kids secretly, without showing their parents, even though the parents came. They shouldn’t force the children to work again, but they did. Even though at that moment they could notice the bleeding and dead kids. The kids were crying. It was the first atrocity I witnessed.
After escaping, Kang became a journalist, author, and human rights activist, publishing the The Aquariums of Pyongyang, the very first survivor’s account of North Korea’s concentration camps.
Today, many North Korean defectors are sharing their stories, including Joseph Kim, who resettled in the US and answered questions in a Reddit AMA last year.
On Wednesday, Kang did an AMA, discussing his experience as a prisoner and his thoughts on how to bring down the regime.
Here are some highlights.

On daily life in the work camps, and what happens when people are caught with the USB sticks

  1. javi404
    What goes on day to day in the jail/concentration camps?
    Has anyone gotten in-trouble from getting caught with USB sticks?
    What other items are dropped such as books I would presume?
    1. KangCholHwan
      Daily life in the work camps is very mundane. We wake up at 5 am and are forced to work until sunset. We are given lessons on Kim il-sung and Juche. We are forced to watch public executions. We are physically abused - hit and tortured. I think of it as another form of Auschwitz. These work camps are like products of Nazism, and an abusive government needs elements such as Nazi concentration camps. They just have different ways of killing people.
      People have almost gotten caught with the USB sticks. Thankfully, they managed to get out before they were caught. However, they cannot go back to North Korea now. But that’s about it currently. North Korean citizens often get caught using these USB sticks but they are released when they give bribes to the police. I believe it would be about 500 dollars maximum in Pyeongang and about 200~300 dollars in other regions. The problem would be if they are caught and they have no money to bribe their way out.
      Read more

On how much exposure North Koreans have to the outside world

  1. Retired_Rentboy
    Wow, I'm really glad you survived. It's a hard question, but how do you feel about leaving your family behind? How aware are they of the "outside world"? How aware were you before you fled North Korea? Do you think there is any hope for North Korea to open up in the near (10-20 years) future?
    All the best to you.
    1. KangCholHwan
      I would have loved to escape with all of my family but that was physically impossible. I feel sorry for them but I try to help them as much as I can. Many people who have escaped from North Korea are trying to help their families back there. These days, the North Korean government seems to be contacting the North Korean defectors in order to allure them back to North Korea, often, while holding the defectors’ families still in North Korea as hostages.
      The degree of exposure to the outside world varies from family to family in North Korea. They can gain exposure through Korean media, for example.
      I had listened to the radio in secret for more than a year prior to escaping. I knew from it the economic situation in South Korea and I thought I knew enough. However, when I actually arrived in South Korea saw it with my own eyes, the economic situation was much different from what I had heard. These days, people watch media more than they listen to radios and that visual media, I believe, is more powerful.
      Regarding your question on whether there is any hope for North Korea to open up in the near future, I think it really varies whether Kim Jung-Eun will still be alive by then. Opening up the country and reform is important for the North Korean people but all power in North Korea exists for a single individual (Kim Jung-EUn). In order for the country to open up, there needs to be a change in individual-centered political power. However, I don’t think Kim will open up the country like Deng Xiaoping of China had done. However, I think within 5 years, the Kim Jung-Eun regime will disappear.
      Read more

On the misconceptions people have of North Koreans

  1. DeusExChimera
    Do you miss North Korea despite what you endured? And, is there any misconception about North Korea that you would like to share?
    1. KangCholHwan
      I dislike the North Korean government, not the people- so yes, I do miss the people there. North Koreans may seem different because they are brainwashed by the government; but once their thoughts change through the flow of information, they are the same as anywhere else. I think it is lamentable that people think of the North Korean government and North Koreans as one entity. North Koreans may seem loyal to the government, but because they fear the government, they cannot speak their minds. For example, Seungjin Park, the North Korean soccer player during the World Cup, was at the Yoduk Political Prisoners Camp with me, but is now acting as the soccer team coach. However, he must hide the fact that he was at the prisoners camp. To learn more about North Korea, you must know something about the nature of North Korea. This is true even when visiting North Korea.
      Read more

On the strategy behind spreading information via movies, videos and digital media rather than balloon “flyers”—something South Korean activists have done. (North Korea has retaliated, sending back balloons filled with cigarette butts and used toilet paper.)

  1. atouchofconsumption
    Can you talk more about your efforts to disseminate free media inside North Korea? Does your organization use balloons sent over the DMZ? How far into the country do they travel? Is there ever push-back from the South Korean government because they are afraid your actions will further inflame tensions?
    I'm sorry that you have been a victim of the world's greatest ongoing injustice, and I applaud you for fighting back.
    1. KangCholHwan
      We don’t use balloons. But I do think they play an important role. The South Korean, of course, tries to stop this method of spreading information because of possible political implications. The main thing about using flyers is to have a press conference about the information on the flyers. These flyers must be spread in secret. But the press conference must be held officially with many people and also have interviews. This is more stimulating for North Korea. Only the people near the DMZ have access to these flyers, unless the wind takes them further inland. We use movies, videos send the market to spread information. This way, information can be spread all over North Korea. I believe this to be a the greatest method of changing the way North Koreans think. Spreading information through media is very important.
      Read more

On the ultimate end game and what needs to happen for the North Korean people to be free

  1. AlabamaJesus
    What is the ultimate end game here? How does the west need to respond to free the North Korean people?
    1. KangCholHwan
      The outside world seems to talk about putting ‘pressure’ on the North Korean government, but I don’t think they know exactly what kind of pressure is necessary. Economic pressure is not the only type of pressure. People need to learn what the North Korean government fears the most. What they are doing to keep the government afloat. First, the government wants to prevent defection. They fear that if many people start to defect, a unification similar to the German case will take place. So, they are focused on keeping the border shut. Second, the government wants to prevent North Koreans from having access to outside information. The more North Korean citizens know, the more danger it is for the government. So far, I do not believe we have been targeting either of these. Real pressure on the North Korean government would be to open up the physical border and induce mass defection, or to open up the information barrier and to provide access to outside information. There needs to be a separation of the North Korean citizens from the government - for example, if more North Korean workers work abroad, they are not getting paid by the government and this eliminates their ties to the government.
      Read more

See the full AMA here.

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