Why you should care
Seoul’s dance with Pyongyang spooks North Korean defectors.
Joo Yang once hid underground in a tiny bunker made for storing kimchi as she evaded detection before fleeing across the North Korean border to China. Years later, as Yang built a new life in Seoul, speaking in public about her experiences and helping other defectors share their own stories became a way to support herself and shed light on life in the communist country.
But multiple defectors and human rights activists say paid speaking opportunities for North Korean escapees — including media appearances and public lectures at universities and military bases — have disappeared over the past two years while President Moon Jae-in has sought rapprochement with dictator Kim Jong Un. The allegations raise questions over whether Moon’s policy of engagement with Kim to abandon nuclear weapons has also included efforts to silence critics and shift public focus from problems such as human rights abuses in North Korea.
A government spokesperson said South Korea “guaranteed press freedom” and officials had not made any requests to media, universities or other public institutions related to North Korean issues. Critics, however, dispute this claim.
Information is key to liberating the minds of the North Korean people.
Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer, Human Rights Foundation
Suzanne Scholte, chair of North Korea Freedom Coalition, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, says the change in approach was “definitely coming from the government.”
“It is having a chilling effect, not only on our awareness and understanding of North Korea, but it is also really painful and economically devastating to the defectors,” Scholte adds.
Ahn Chan-il, a Seoul-based defector, researcher and commentator on North Korea, believes that from early 2018 — ahead of a flurry of summitry between Moon and Kim — he was “permanently struck from the list” of guest contributors with most state-backed media.
“I used to be on [state-linked television news] almost every day, but suddenly since March , they stopped calling me,” Ahn says. “I don’t know exactly what has happened but the [presidential] Blue House might have put pressure on those broadcasters, or the broadcasters became too loyal to the government.”
Yang, who had run a small consultancy helping other escapees find paid speaking opportunities, is one of several defectors to allege that officials requested North Koreans not to speak publicly about human rights and instead focus on “good things” about their former home country. She ended her consultancy last December after a contract with a state-linked organization was cut short.
Several North Koreans and academics say they have also been directed by officials and media executives to use the formal title of “chairman” when talking publicly about Kim. For North Koreans who risked their lives to escape and still have family in the country, the request is highly offensive.
“He’s a murderer. He’s not a ‘Mr. Kim,’” says Yeonmi Park, a North Korean defector and now a U.S.-based author and human rights activist.
Senior reporters with two state-backed news organizations said there were no editorial directives to reject commentators critical of the Kim regime or promote Moon’s policy of engagement.
The complaints come as hopes rise that U.S. President Donald Trump will restart talks with Kim. Human rights organizations say Moon’s government has also cracked down on groups that try to counter Pyongyang’s propagandists by sending factual information and cultural content into North Korea.
South Korean officials say the government had asked organizations to stop distribution of information but insist that the move was in accordance with the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration. The agreement, signed by Kim and Moon, contained a pledge to “stop all hostile acts” including loudspeaker broadcasting and distribution of leaflets along the border area.
Activists have floated balloons carrying leaflets and shortwave radios into North Korea for years. Scholte says enforcement of the new policy was “very disturbing and continues to be a problem.”
“The people doing balloon launches are doing them secretly at night, because they know they will be stopped [by police],” she says.
Another North Korean defector, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says he worked with South Korea’s Defense Ministry on radio broadcasts targeting North Korean soldiers near the border area for three years “mainly discussing North Korea media’s incorrect reports.” But, he says, his role was discontinued in early 2018. Losing the work was particularly galling, he adds, because he was inspired to defect in 2009 after listening to similar illegal foreign media broadcasts for years.
“My experience of listening to radio in North Korea changed my life. Because North Koreans are not able to get access to outside information, the current [South Korean] government is stopping North Koreans from having opportunities to change their lives,” the defector says.
Thae Yong Ho, a former deputy ambassador to the U.K., who in 2016 became the highest-ranking North Korean diplomat to defect to South Korea, says disseminating information to younger North Koreans was “very important” in spurring people to reject the state’s ideological control and authoritarian rule.
However, John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, says Moon’s strategy of engagement with the Kim regime would serve to improve human rights.
Park, the author and activist, says the international community must “accelerate” all efforts to get outside information into North Korea.
“This de-brainwashing began a long time ago.… Do we want to help them? Or do we want to crush their dreams by helping the dictator out?” she asks.
With the South Korean–based efforts to both expose North Korean human rights issues and educate people inside North Korea about the outside world under pressure, some international organizations are stepping up their activities via China.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF), a New York-based NGO, claims to have smuggled approximately 100,000 data storage devices into North Korea via China over the past three years.
The foundation sends donated USB flash drives and SD cards loaded with entertainment programs like movies and soap operas into the country. The devices often include news clippings and broadcasts, testimonials from defectors and political material such as translations of books about the fall of the Soviet Union and the Arab Spring.
The organization estimates that each device reaches about 10 people, implying the material has been seen by as many as 1.3 million North Koreans, or 1 in every 20 people in the country.
“Information is key to liberating the minds of the North Korean people,” says Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer of HRF.
OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2020.