An HRNK Interview with Kim Kwang-jin

By Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor

Q1: What motivated you to become involved in the North Korean human rights field?

Kim Kwang-jin: I frequently travelled abroad, visiting Singapore and also China for banking business. After I defected in 2003, living in the free world, I felt that a lot of things are wrong in North Korea. Most of the people are not given basic human rights. They cannot move freely. They cannot freely choose their jobs. They cannot go abroad as exchange students, with the exception of a very select few. They cannot possess their passports, They cannot have religion. In every aspect, all North Korean people’s rights are abused and they do not even know what human rights mean.

Q2: Why does the North Korean regime focus most of its resources on the mining industry as opposed to other industries?

Kim Kwang-jin: The whole North Korean economic system has collapsed. They do not have things to sell to others except by digging coal and iron ore. So, these became the major resources for the North Korean regime to sell to others, particularly China, to make money. Of course, this sector has also collapsed, but there was high demand from China for the consumption of these mineral resources. Also, in North Korea, they began to develop private transactions and market elements. Of course, it was not forced by the regime, but by individuals and by the public. They could develop themselves and have a way to mobilize resources, like coal and iron ore, and sell it to China. This was not through the state trading system, but through private individuals and small companies.

Q3: What role does songbun, North Korea’s social classification system, play in the export industries?

Kim Kwang-jin: Actually, North Korea is running a kind of caste system. They classify their own people in different categories. There is status bestowed through birth and there is social status. When a person is born, they are assigned a certain status, classification, or social category. If they are from a “good” loyal family, they can have better jobs and they can be promoted easily. They can have better education, better housing, better salary, and better rations. But when they’re born into a family with bad songbun or bad classification, they enjoy fewer privileges. They are always marginalized. The most difficult jobs in North Korea are mining coal and iron ore, and farming. Most of the workers in those areas are from these bad songbun classifications. So, the songbun system is fully in place everywhere in North Korea. It affects the export industry and slave labor in many ways. Also, because of this songbun system, these marginalized and less privileged people suffer in mines and on difficult jobs.

Q4: Who should be held accountable for the human rights violations in North Korea’s export industries?

Kim Kwang-jin: Of course, Kim Jong-un himself, the North Korean regime, and the Korean Worker’s Party (KWP). At the last Seventh Party Congress, Kim Jong-un became the Chairman of the KWP. He is in charge of everything. He is at the top. He is called the brain of the North Korean revolution. So, he’s in charge of everything. Also, the North Korea elite and the system should be held accountable for this slave labor, forced labor, and the human rights abuses in the mining industry.

Q5: Should countries refrain from importing North Korean minerals?

Kim Kwang-jin: The money from these resources is used for the development of the nuclear and missile program, but there is another very good reason that member states should be careful when importing these North Korean underground resources. The North Korean mining industry systematically abuses human rights, “capitalizing” on the loyalty-based songbun classification system. These minerals are produced through human rights abuses. This is another reason why states and private entities should exercise maximum caution when importing North Korean resources.

Original transcription by Lauren McBroom, HRNK Research Intern