“He who ran away” – my conversation with a North Korean Defector: Nov 2019

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Having arrived late yesterday from Singapore and caught up with Matt, from Australia, in the bar briefly we had had an early night. Sylvia and her Asia Pacific Leadership team were all here for a meeting.

Sylvia and the team headed into their meeting this morning while I did a few hours work before going for a stroll around the hill in front of the Hyatt hotel. It had rained here on Sunday and washed the smog out of the sky leaving clear blue skies and a crisp day. The air is dry so the 2 degrees C feels a lot warmer. It is autumn here and the trees are losing their leaves with the forest on the hill showing off the bright fall colours. Not far from the hotel i got onto a track leading around the east side of the hill. Along the track at intervals are small covered and uncovered gyms with weight and exercise machines.

The track eventually leads up the centre of the ridge to the Seoul Tower. Purchasing a ticket i headed up to the observation deck along the way to the lift going through what looks like a large disco room with lots of changing light patterns. The day is still clear with minimal haze. A sign tells me there is a revolving restaurant above the observation deck. A chat with the person on the desk and its back in the lift and up to the restaurant. This is indeed a great place to observe the sights of the city from and gives one a good idea how they have managed to cram over 25 million people into the greater Seoul area. Interestingly the towering apartment blocks run out through the many valleys of the surrounding hills. As the restaurant did its complete revolution I enjoyed some really great food. Running down the ridge back towards the hotel is the Hanyangdoseong, the Seoul City Wall. this is the longest serving wall in history. It served as a defensive wall for the city from 1396 to 1910, 514 years; apparently no other wall has ever done that. I am sure that it has been rebuilt a few times over the years as what we see now looks recently restored.

Wednesday 20 November 2019

At around 8am Scott, from the DMZ tour company, picked me up at the hotel. Originally i had booked a trip to the JSA (Joint Services Area) having tried twice before to go there. Last time it was closed as the leaders were having a peace chat, this time its closed as the north has an outbreak of swine flu. Hence we are on an alternative tour. The first stop is an intersection just behind the Blue House (Presidential House) where on the 21st January 1968 31 North Korean commandos came wandering down the street aiming to attack the blue house and kill the then president. They were challenged and a gunfight broke out. A senior policeman was killed and the commandos withdrew up the road and into the hills with, by now, soldiers in pursuit.

We headed up the road a few kms and stopped at a look out where Scott pointed out a ridge in the distance where 9 of the commandos were killed. He also pointed out an old anti-aircraft gun on a local military base justified by the fact that the north only has old planes!

A little further up the road we again dismounted and headed up a track on a ridge that the commandos had used. We walked a few hundred meters and at a rock face Scott tells me this is where another 3 were killed and you can see the 50 odd bullet marks in the rock. in my opinion the holes have been somewhat enhanced and the holes marked with red and white paint.

After the attack bunkers were built along the ridge just in case they came back. Out of the 31 twenty nine were killed, one captured and one made it back to the north, later becoming a general and later again executed.

Next we headed north to the border, driving alongside the Hangang River with, as we got closer to the border, its barbed wire fence and pill boxes – no longer manned but covered by numerous cameras and heat sensing devices. This road runs all the way to Pyongyang; there is just a bit of a problem getting across the border. We headed off the motorway and up to the Unification Tower, up on a hill where the Hangang River meets the Imjin River, which flows from the north. The border here runs down the middle of the now Han river as it heads out to sea. With this still clear day the views from the tower are impressive. Through the binoculars provided free of charge one can see the peasants of the north working in the fields. There is a cluster of buildings with a large hall in the middle complete with monument to the great leader. The tower we are in has several levels with a museum on the ground floor, which hosts, among other things, a piano with barbed wire for strings. The views from the top floor and the terraces are impressive.

Next we headed to the Imjingak Peace Park and Freedom Bridge. I had been here a couple of years ago but things have changed a bit. It now also hosts a large kid’s amusement park and a gondola is being built to take people across the river towards the DMZ. The DMZ is two kms on each side of the border but added to that on the south side is the CCA, Civilian Controlled area, where access is restricted. The old railway bridge with the old bullet riddled train pulled out of the DMZ has been enhanced and the bullet holes in the old bridge piers marked with red paint. Just to the east is the new railway, which one day they hope will run all the way to Paris. It did operate a few years ago when the south was helping run factories in the north.

After lunch and a look around we headed back to the city and the War Memorial Museum, which I had visited before. There, after a brief look around, we met Seo Jea-Pyoung in a cafe. He now heads the association of North Korean Defectors. The next 90 minutes flew by as he told his story and Scott interpreted.

Graduating university as a geologist and, having only had to complete 3 of the 10 years required military service due to an injury, he was employed in the R&D department at the Hamheung city university. In NK there is only one radio station and all radios will only tune into that station. One day Seo purchased, on the black market, a radio that would tune into the SK stations. His plan was just to listen to the news once!! He could not believe what he was hearing and how nice the people on the radio in the south sounded so the once became twice and so on. One night he had fallen asleep on the couch with the radio beside him but fortunately not turned on. A common practice is for the police to routinely raid houses in the early hours of the morning. So, caught he was, but told the police how he had found the radio and it didn’t work. The police took the radio and over the next few days he had to report to the police station and was told that if he told the truth he wouldn’t be sent to the punishment camp. He then found out that the man he bought the radio off had been caught and ratted on him.

He bribed a soldier to get a travel pass to Namyang on the Chinese border. There a broker organised, for 20 USD, a 7-day pass to China. Arriving in a village in China he was shocked to see that the dog was being fed white rice, bearing in mind at that time in the year 2000 NK was still suffering from a drought and famine that had started in 1994 and he had never seen white rice. He ended up in Yanja city where he had an aunt. He talked about watching TV all day as he had to hide and couldn’t believe they had 52 channels. Street lamps and neon signs were something else he had never seen as the only place in his NK city to have power was the local statue to Kim Il Song. He couldn’t believe that at dinner one night the people he was staying with started bagging the Chinese leadership. He then became defensive when they started bagging Kim Il Son.

After 3 months he was moved to Mishan, a small country town where he worked in a local coke making factory, receiving one tenth of the wages of the locals as part of the deal for hiding him. With the workers he joined the local church where there was a SK priest who, after 9 months, organised him and 5 others a passage out of the country. They headed back to Yanja city and caught a train from there to a place called Allen near the Mongolian border. From there it was just a day’s walk across the Gobi desert into Mongolia. Unfortunately their navigation skills weren’t too good and it was some three days later when a Mongolian police patrol discovered them, saving their lives. After being checked over they were taken to Ulan Bator and the SK embassy there, and on the 24 July 2001 his first aeroplane ride took him to Seoul.

Once here he spent 3 months in a refugee centre learning the skills required to adapt to his new life. He was then given the equivalent of 25,000 USD, rented an apartment long term for 13k then spent another 10k getting his wife and son out of NK, this time by boat -much more expensive but safer. I asked the question as to why NK hadn’t put his family in prison or executed them. Apparently that is not done. There are some 33,000 defectors in Seoul and none of the families have been hurt.

He went on to explain in detail how he goes about sending money to his brother in NK. That bit I am not going to share because I don’t want to endanger his brother. Nowadays there are some ten thousand cell phones in NK along the Chinese border so communication is possible.

During the famine of the nineties many people died as the government couldn’t provide food as they had done in the past so out of that rose a black market, which nowadays has evolved into a capitalist market. Soe went on to explain that there are now a large group of wealthy people in NK who control the economy.¬† Kim Jong Un controls the people. interestingly Seo went on to say that the standard of living in NK has risen to where China was in the late 80s. He said you spot the wealthy people nowadays as they are the ones that have solar panels on their roof. He has offered to get his brother out of NK but he is quite happy to stay there.

We then went on to have a long discussion on the nuclear¬† weapons issue. Seo kept saying that Kim can’t give them up. Although I couldn’t fully establish his reasoning my interpretation is that Kim really needs the sanctions to help control the people. If the sanctions come off all the modern stuff will come flooding into the country allowing the people to see that maybe they haven’t quite been told the truth over the past 70 years and along will come a revolution.

Another interesting thing Seo explained was that during his childhood his parents knew the truth but never uttered a word to him or his siblings that was in contradiction with what they were being taught.

I must say I really enjoyed the encounter with Seo and also a big thanks to Scott who did a great job interpreting, especially as it was his last day as a guide.



3 thoughts on ““He who ran away” – my conversation with a North Korean Defector: Nov 2019

  1. Mark Goldberg says:

    Echoing Seo’s brother’s sentiment, I recently had a conversation with my Washington DC Uber driver who was from Afghanistan. He had a lot of family there and he was in a position to bring them over to the US, but if they came the cost of living is such that it would be a much more hectic, complicated, work-oriented life then they were living. There was reluctance to give that up for our rat race.

  2. Jo-Anne Hitchcock says:

    I read a book about a girl who defected from NK, really sad and unbelievable. Be amazing to hear it directly from the person

  3. Rosie says:

    Great story. Thanks Seo, Scott and Roger. You sure find some interesting places and people Roger. Thanks for sharing.

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