The Extraordinary Life of a Defector

Boldly confronting the world’s most secretive state

Joo-il Kim is recounting a scene from his childhood in North Korea.

“One evening I was playing with some of my school friends in the street. One of my friends threw a stone, accidentally knocking the nose off a nearby statue of Kim Il-sung. By the next morning my friend and his entire family had disappeared and we never saw them again.”

I’ve met Joo-il in a room at the back of a barber shop in New Malden, a small town in suburban South London, well known for its expatriate Korean population. He delivers this chilling anecdote frankly, softly, and without obvious emotion. There’s a notable vacancy in his eyes when he speaks.

The statue of Kim Il-sung that Joo-il’s friend damaged is one of about 500 in North Korea. This man ruled the country from 1948 until his death in 1994 and was one of the most revolting dictators the world has ever known. He crippled the country financially, poisoned it with his personality cult, and his terrible legacy continues to gasp on: first through his successor and son, Kim Jong-il, and now through his grandson, Kim Jong-un.

Statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il

Kim Il-sung’s regime alone was responsible for the deaths of over  1 million North Koreans, either through execution, forced labour or concentration camps. The existence of the latter is still vehemently denied by the North Korean government, despite an overwhelming wealth of satellite and testimonial evidence suggesting otherwise.

I ask Joo-il – who was born in 1973, about halfway into Kim Il-sung’s reign – if he had any knowledge of these dreaded camps when he was in the country.

We all knew. None of us had ever actually seen them, but every single person in North Korea knows the prison camps exist.”

In the last few decades North Korea has become a source of incredulous fascination for anyone fortunate enough to have been born outside its perimeters. It’s the most secretive and isolated country in the world, an open air prison of not just bodies, but also minds. An Orwellian nightmare from which few wake up.

“Most North Korean people are not allowed to travel freely,” says Joo-il. “You have no idea what other people’s lives are like outside your home town. The idealised education system ensures all the people are brainwashed at school, no matter where they’re born. This is a very closed society. You only hear what the authorities want you to hear.”

Despite this, as he grew older Joo-il began to have doubts about the regime. He joined the army at 16 for a decade of compulsory national service and rose to the rank of Captain.

“At school you learn not only about the idealisation of the Kim family, but also about how great the army is. This gives you certain expectations for the army system. But when I entered the reality was very different. There were lots of beatings and serious poverty. Many soldiers starve, many soldiers die.

The Korean People's Army is the largest military force in the world

In North Korea you always see people dying of illness and public execution, so you somehow get used to seeing death. However when you see someone dying from starvation, this is so dreadful and unnatural because eating is such a basic human instinct.”

Being stationed near the border with China allowed Joo-il’s delusion to blossom. As well as food, everyday products, like toothbrushes and toothpaste,  were practically non-existent. However, sometimes goods were smuggled across the border, and one thing in particular would always catch his eye.

Made in China.

“I began to think…”, he pauses and rubs his brow as he relives the revelation, “I began to think maybe… just maybe life would be a bit better there. At this time many people were being publically executed for exchanging metals like copper and aluminium for food and products smuggled from China. So I reasoned that there must be a market over there. My military uniform had a copper star and a copper belt buckle, so I thought I could exchange these for food.”

A plan to defect had begun to formulate in Joo-il’s mind, but he knew that apart from the obvious risks to his own life, the consequences for his family could be disastrous. One of the ways in which the North Korean regime keeps an iron grip on the behaviour of its people is guilt by association. If one person steps out of line, it won’t just be that individual who receives extreme punishment – usually public execution or life in a prison camp – but the individual’s entire family, as in the case of his school friend who chipped a statue all those years before.

I wonder how this man dealt with such a traumatic dilemma and naively ask if he confided in anyone, and he patiently explains why that would have been something amounting to suicide.

“You have to understand this special system in North Korea. Although you may have doubt, there is no possible way you could share your thoughts with anyone. It’s like you are surrounded by human CCTV cameras. There are so many spies. These spies don’t even know who each other are because they belong to different authorities. You are constantly being watched. The main weapon the regime has against its people is fear.

The education system is focused on building a dutiful attitude. You are taught that the regime is as much your family as your actual family. This is another way in which the people are brainwashed. You don’t dare betray your own family.”

North Korean propaganda

But, after eight years of anguished deliberation, he did dare. In 2005 Joo-il Kim escaped.

Under the cover of darkness, he made his way across the Yalu River into China. Terrified of making a sound and being caught, the process took him four hours. Once across the border he crept up to higher ground to hide.

I’m interested to know if there was a precise moment when he realised he had made the right decision, or if it was more of a gradual realisation, and for the first time in our interview he smiles.

“There were two things which made me know I had made a good decision. Firstly, after I had crossed the river, I looked back at North Korea. It was very dark. Then I looked forward into China, and there were lots of lights. Somehow I knew this was very important.”

He literally saw the light.

“Secondly, when dawn came after that first night, I realised I was hiding in an orchard. There were so many apples. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Some of the apples had dropped to the ground, some were even rotting, but no one had taken them away. I had never seen a big, ripe apple, because in North Korea people are so desperate for food they eat apples the moment they appear, before they even look like apples.”

At this point Joo-il Kim was far from safe. He knew he would be turned back to North Korea if discovered by the Chinese authorities. He was a fugitive as well as a refugee, and would remain this way for the next year, during which he slept in parks every night, and begged for food at restaurants every day. Eventually he came into contact with someone from an NGO, who helped him get into Vietnam.

From Vietnam he tried several times to make his way into Cambodia, but kept getting turned back. He eventually succeeding by finding a new route across treacherous swamplands. Alas, he was reported, arrested, and ended up in the custody of border officials. He rightly suspected that if he could convince his captors he was South Korean they would be more lenient, so this is what he did, which afforded him a small window of time. While they investigated his claims he was left unwatched, and managed to escape.

From Cambodia Joo-il made his way to Thailand, where he met someone from another NGO, and that person helped him come to the UK to claim asylum, which was granted.

It’s an extraordinary tale, one which could form the contents of a book in its own right, and while I’m trying to digest it I ask Joo-il if he has any regrets about leaving the country.

I have no regrets whatsoever about escaping the regime, but I have great guilt for my family. The consequences of what I did mean my family has to suffer a lot.”

Joo-il’s face becomes – understandably – racked with sadness when he speaks of his loved ones. He lost all contact with them several years ago, but through his secret contacts in the country he found out that they weren’t initially murdered or sent to a prison camp, rather became ‘24-hour civilians’, which essentially means they are watched every minute of their lives.

The only reason they – hopefully – continue to escape a worse fate is because since arriving in the UK, Joo-il has devoted his life to campaigning against human rights abuses in North Korea. He believes because he is now a well-known figure on the world stage, the regime is reluctant to persecute his family because it would contradict their insistence that they do not commit human rights abuses.

Joo-il passionately believes the only way the situation can ever improve is to change the mind-set of the North Korean people.

“Most people think that if the regime changes, North Korea will change. But it won’t. People make the mistake of thinking that change is dependent on the leader’s character. It doesn’t work that way. It’s totally about the unique system the country has developed. The change has to come from within the North Korean citizens.

“For the last 60 years everyone in the outside world has focused on the North Korean government. This has been international policy since 1953. Has North Korea changed at all in this time? No. Not at all. Despite economic hardship, the society still maintains its system.

The key is gaining access to ordinary North Koreans. Developing the BBC World Service is one route.”

Another route, which Joo-il is personally responsible for, is Free NK, the newspaper he has established and runs from his office in New Malden. It is written by North Korean refugees and smuggled into the country through a series of elaborate means, none of which can be reported on for obvious reasons.

The current leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, most recently made the headlines for his 100% re-election victory. This is just the latest in a seemingly never-ending list of tediously absurd fallacies to emerge from the propaganda machine.

Kim Jong-un surrounded by soliders

Before we finish, I ask Joo-il how he feels when he sees these kinds of stories from his UK vantage point.

“Now when I see the regime in the news I say to myself:  ‘Wow, what a great show. They haven’t done this for just one generation, but three.’ It’s ridiculous. Since my escape I have seen all the evidence of what they have done. My suspicions have been fully confirmed.”

The interview ends and I pause for a while to speak with Joo-il’s translator, Bona Shin from South Korea. She confesses that the first time she met him she was very nervous – “I thought he was a spy!” – and that most North Korean refugees keep an extremely low profile for fear of reprisals against their families.

It’s a poignant reminder that while the regime still exists, the people of North Korea – either inside or out – will never be completely free.