February 17, 2021

Education, Information, and Liberation for North Koreans

 By Jihyun Park

Translated into English by Jeune Kim, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Greg Scarlatoiu, HRNK Executive Director

HRNK contributor Ms. Jihyun Park is a British North Korean escapee and human rights activist. Ms. Park is co-author of “Deux CorĂ©ennes.” She is a survivor of forced marriage and human trafficking. She escaped from North Korea twice, enduring imprisonment in gulags and many near-death experiences. Today, she displays immense courage, raising awareness of the plight of North Korean women and the crimes against humanity they suffer. In doing so, she continues to face danger on a daily basis. Ms. Park received the NatWest's Chairman's Award AWA in 2018 and the Amnesty Brave Award in 2020. Currently, she is running as a conservative candidate for local election in the United Kingdom.

North Korean teachers have always had control over the ideology of the children. They teach history, and the idolization of Kim Il-sung for the ultimate purpose of cementing the Kim family regime’s grip on power. Korean War orphans sent to Eastern Europe had a different educational experience. Eastern European teachers educated them, taking on subjects such as art and music. The role of literature was particularly significant. Of course, the repression of intellectuals in Eastern European countries that received those North Korean children was harsh. But, particularly after the death of Stalin in 1953, Eastern European countries experienced a slight relaxation of draconian restrictions. That all ended with the Hungarian anti-communist revolution of 1956.

Their Eastern European teachers taught the North Korean children about ancient Greek mythology, classical literature and had them read the works of Shakespeare. Many of the children realized that there was a world out there, completely different from the one of uniform collectivism emphasized by North Korean teachers. There were even children who secretly borrowed books and read them when they were out of the sight of North Korean teachers. What they discovered was self-reflection, the power to reflect back on themselves.

The children’s eyes were opened to the freedom and universal human rights that shaped modern civil society in Europe. They learned this from Eastern European teachers, even though Eastern Europe itself was, at the time, under the yoke of communist dictatorship. It was a profound change that could not have taken place if these children had not lived in Eastern Europe. Oppressed as they were, some of their Eastern European teachers still had memories of different times, and different political systems.

Why did Kim Il-sung bring the war orphans living in Eastern Europe back to North Korea during the late 1950s and start shutting out all information from the outside world? Finding out what it is that transformed the thoughts and behavior of these children is the fundamental key to solving this North Korean puzzle today.

Kim Il-sung brought these children back to North Korea because of the art and culture they encountered in Eastern Europe. He did so because, even though Eastern Europe was ruled under a communist system at the time, its culture had been founded on individualism and the way of thinking that shaped modern European civil society had also evolved from individualist philosophy.

Just as it did 70 years ago, North Korea continues to maintain the most brutal regime in history under the Kim family dictatorship and, in the name of xenophobia, blocks information coming from the outside.

Why does North Korea restrict information? In a totalitarian dictatorship, they must root out all the flowers and trees that grow in the fields, and instead plant flowers of their own favorite color, and divide and cultivate them based on their components (songbun). In addition, North Korea regards “double thinkers” (those who pay lip service to the Kim regime, but are suspected of being sympathetic to different political systems) as a hostile class, so people cannot share what they really think with their families at home, nor with their relatives outside.

When I was young, there was a song that my father would always sing during the holidays, when he and his friends had one drink too many. It was a folk song called “Let Us Go to the Sea.” He would sing, “Let’s go to the sea over there, let’s go to the sea…” Because I was young then, I did not understand what that song meant. But now, I understand that it was about the desire to gaze at the vast blue sea and freely express all the sorrow and resentment from deep within to one’s heart’s content. My parents’ generation only knew loyalty to the Supreme Leader. They could not even confidently answer their own children’s questions, fearing a mistake could downgrade their songbun status; they feared even inquiring about the whereabouts of their own relatives.

It was in the 1990s when the Arduous March began to permeate this dark land. Numerous people dying of starvation left; they were people who left North Korea and went to China, clutching their starving stomachs, because they had to survive.

The place where they went was also dominated by a communist regime, but for the people of North Korea, it was an opportunity to discover a new world. And as we saw the distorted and falsified history of North Korea, we were able to open our eyes.

The first thing we heard in China was Chinese people cursing Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Even though the government controlled everything, the Chinese people could freely watch dozens of TV channels. The moment I saw them watching South Korean dramas on satellite TV and singing South Korean songs, I was so surprised by this kind of world that I asked myself the question: “Who am I and where am I from?”

Even as I was forcibly repatriated, beaten, and tortured as a “traitor” in a North Korean prison, I was able to endure the suffering because of the image that sparked before my eyes: being in that place, like I was receiving a gift for the first time in my life. I lived determined to go back to that place. This is why people who are forcibly repatriated twice, even three times, still want to leave that hellscape.

For those who are not living in a tunnel but in a lightless cave, information, culture, and art are like warmth that melts away the chill on a cold winter’s day, a moment to forget the struggles and dance beneath the palm trees, and a lighthouse in the middle of a dark sea that you are blessed to see as a gift from God.

What the North Korean regime fears is this gift from God—that the people of North Korea will think differently from the regime. Therefore, the North Korean regime regulates its people according to a planned daily schedule from when they wake up in the morning to when they go to sleep in the evening, coercing them into forced labor, and not allowing for any free time.

Even as they see the people dying of starvation, without any concern for their lives, they continue to force upon them an overwhelming amount of political brainwashing, never stopping even once.

They use idolization to entrap the minds of the North Korean people living under a dictatorship and oppress their souls.

The law that has been proposed on the order of Kim Yo-jong in step with this North Korean regime is the law regarding the development of inter-Korean relations; it is the anti-leaflet law in South Korea. Anti-North Korea leaflets not only include information that discloses the brutal atrocities committed by the dictatorial North Korean regime, but also things that will melt the hearts and ease the hardships of North Koreans. Activists even send gifts, such as vitamins, Bibles, and portable media devices containing culture and art.

Before Germany was reunified, the East German government said that their enemies were on the roofs, fearing the antennas mounted on the roofs used to watch West German TV. After reunification, the people of East Germany said that during the day they were in East Germany and at night they were in West Germany, demonstrating how the information flowing in from West Germany had changed them.

The current administration that speaks of peace on the Korean peninsula, President Moon Jae-in’s family were also refugees who came to South Korea during the Hungnam evacuation that is referred to as the Christmas Miracle. If they had no information, would they have gotten on that boat? Moon, whose family received the miraculous information that others did not receive and settled in South Korea and became president, is now obstructing the miraculous information that the people of his hometown longed for while shouting for peace on the Korean peninsula. Whom does this hypocritical “peace” serve?

The following line from the bill sparked much anger:

Article 25 (Penalties) ① A person who violates Article 24 (1) shall be sentenced to a maximum of three years in prison or fined up to 30 million won.

Reading this bill sent chills down my spine, reminding me of the forced repatriation from China. The Chinese government made sure that if a Chinese national discovered a North Korean escapee, they would immediately inform the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, and then get paid with a reward. As a result, the Chinese would feverishly search for North Korean defectors and report them, driving them to be forcibly repatriated. Many North Korean lives were lost, and this resulted in many separated families.

This law, which is like the South Korean government making a public notice to its citizens to report those who launch anti-North Korea leaflets to authorities, is mortifying for North Korean escapees.

It is the duty and mission of a free individual to lend a helping hand to those who are reaching out and seeking help from a dark place.

There are many people in North Korea who are living as “double thinkers,” and it is information about culture and art that has come in from the outside world that has brought about this change of thought.

Even though we are not able to travel to North Korea, we should not forget the extraordinary sense of accomplishment when information and news from the outside world reach the North Korean people.

Even now, there is something that the South Korean government should not forget. If the enemy of the North Korean dictator right now is the free government of South Korea, then tomorrow, those who put this bill into effect must keep in mind that they could easily become enemies of the dictator. One day, they may even become slaves as well.

One thing is sure: No leader, no government, and no law will be able to prevent the North Korean people from accessing information from the outside world—not even Kim Jong-un or Moon Jae-in. They have already tasted the free world through information entering North Korea. There is no turning back.