This article is the second part of a miniseries of interviews, conducted with two North Korean defectors. Part 1 can be found here and part 2 here. In Part 3, Nam Gyu (25, real name) and Ji Yong (30, fake name) talk about their lives in North Korea: the education, how the regime brainwashed them and violated basic human rights. Lastly, they discuss the difficulties they faced adapting to life in South Korea. (Featured Image © Uwe Brodrecht)
Question: What kind of education did you receive?
Ji Yong: “People in North Korea usually go to school until the age of 18. History is particularly important in our education. Even when you are bad at mathematics, you can pass with flying colors as long as you are good at history. Memorizing the history of the great leaders is extremely important, especially in high school. When learning about the history of both North and South Korea, we were told that America has colonized South Korea, and that our goal is to liberate that South Korea.
During maths, we got questions such as: ‘Our beloved leader Kim Jong Un has five apples and the Americans stole two. How many apples does our beloved leader have left?’
The North Korean ideology is found in all our subjects, including courses such as maths, science and English. For example, in English we mainly memorized war-related sentences, such as “Stop! Hands up! I am going to shoot!” or “Kim Jong Un is our beloved leader”. We learned British English instead of American English due to the hatred towards America. During maths, we got questions such as: ‘Our beloved leader Kim Jong Un has five apples and the Americans stole two. How many apples does our beloved leader have left?'”
Q: Do you believe you were brainwashed? Yeon-Mi Park, a well-known North Korean defector, once said in an interview that she believed, “the North Korean leader could read our minds.” Did you believe this as well?
Ji Yong: “I believe I was brainwashed. This is partly due to the education you receive. Even though I did not believe the dear leader was able to read my mind, I did believe that if the leader died, an apocalypse would happen.”
Nam Gyu: “Even though I did not go to school for long, I did believe South Korea was evil and North Korea was the hero, based on what my friends would tell me. In the North Korean educational system, history is centered around North Korea. You are only taught one perspective and forced to believe it.”
Q: At what point did you start doubting the North Korean regime?
Ji Yong: “I only started doubting the North Korean regime after the currency reform was implemented. Due to this reform, many people died from hunger. It is then then that I realized my life was worth nothing to the state and I decided to defect.”
Nam Gyu: “Even after that reform, I didn’t doubt the North Korean regime. It was only by conversing with people and receiving education in South Korea, that I started doubting the regime. Prior to this, I didn’t even think it was the fault of the North Korean regime that people, including myself, were starving.”
Q: What do you think about human rights in North Korea? Has your view regarding human rights changed after you left North Korea?
Ji Yong: “I didn’t know what human rights were when I was in North Korean. After I learned about human rights in South Korea, I realized that a lot of North Korean citizens, including my past self, had experienced human rights violations, namely: not being able to eat, work or say what you want.”
In North Korea, there are many homeless children, yet there is no institutionalized help for them.
Nam Gyu: “During my childhood I would often get beaten by my father, which was quite common in North Korea. There was no system to protect me from my father’s violent behavior. Neither were there any NGO’s or orphanages to take me in when I was living on the street and begging. In North Korea, there are many homeless children, yet there is no institutionalized help for them. What is even worse, is that the police often beat the homeless kids. It is only after escaping North Korea, that I learned this was not normal.”
Q: Did life in North Korea change a lot after Kim Jong-Un became President?
Ji Yong: “I personally do not know, since I had already left North Korea by the time Kim Jong-Un became president. However, according to a North Koreans, life in North Korea did become better. He says that Kim Jong-Un does more for the citizens than his father, Kim Jong-Il. For example, Kim Jong-Un became more lenient on the existence of black markets.” The black markets play a crucial role in the lives of many North Koreans. Some reports stated, “Over 5 million people are either “directly or indirectly” reliant on the markets.”
Over 5 million people are either “directly or indirectly” reliant on the black markets.
Q: How is your life in South Korea?
Ji Yong: “I came to South Korea without any expectations. I came here for the simple reason that my mother was here and because I could not live in North Korea any longer. That being said, it is difficult to adapt to life in South Korea due to language and cultural differences. I always wondered whether I was doing something wrong. For example: I did not know whether I was allowed to go to the bathroom during an interview or whether or not people would think I was weird for asking the way to the classroom. Nevertheless, I was lucky that I had many South Korean friends willing to help me.”
Nam Gyu: “For me it is similar. I have never experienced any discrimination while living in South Korea. People do tend to say: ‘Life in North Korea must have been tough for you.’”
Q: According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification data, the suicide rate amongst North Koreans living in South Korea is three times higher than that of South Korean natives. Are you surprised hearing this? Were there times that you regretted defecting?
Ji Yong: “It is difficult to adapt to life in South Korea, but you have to understand that everyone has different experiences and expectations. I think elderly North Korean people have more difficulties adapting to life in South Korea and are also a lot more vulnerable to discrimination. For example, even though I have never experienced any discrimination, my mother has. I think this is mainly due to the fact that elderly North Korean people cannot study in South Korea, and often do not know what to do or where to go when they are faced with injustice. It is easy for them to feel alienated and lonely.
When my uncle defected to South Korea, he had a very difficult time. He was lonely, and wasn’t able to find a stable job. He still had family members in North Korea, and was trying to save up money in order to bring his son to South Korea, but then he got conned. Eventually he committed suicide by jumping into the Han River.”
Please note that this interview reflects a personal opinion and does not represent the general view of North Korean defectors.