North Korea: Dissidents' Fight for Freedom

Washington Post Op-Ed columnist Michael Gerson traveled to Seoul, South Korea to interview 

North Koreans who escaped from one of the most repressive and cruel regimes in the world.  

His conversation with Jim intersperses what he learned with stories told by the dissidents 

themselves about the ways the regime controls the population of North Korea and how they 

managed to escape. 


Transcript



JIM GLASSMAN:
Welcome to Ideas In Action, a television series about ideas and their consequences.  I'm Jim Glassman.  This week, for citizens of North Korea, speaking out against the regime of Kim Jong-Il is dangerous business.  The penalty is death.  Family members of dissenters can be sent to prison camps.
Today, North Koreans who have managed to escape are working to bring news of the outside world to their compatriots inside North Korea.  But what kind of messages can foster opposition or bring hope to a population that is oppressed, brain-washed, and only barely scraping by?  Joining me to explore this topic is Michael Gerson, columnist for The Washington Post and former speech-writer to President George W. Bush.
He recently visited South Korea where he interviewed North Korean dissidents.  The topic this week, "North Korea:  Voices of Dissent."  This is Ideas In Action.  (MUSIC)
ANNOUNCER:
Funding for Ideas In Action is provided by Investor's Business Daily.  Every stock market cycle is led by America's never-ending stream of innovative new companies and inventions.  Investor's Business Daily helps investors find these new leaders as they emerge.  More information is available at Investors.com.
JIM GLASSMAN:
This footage, smuggled out of North Korea, shows a population where hunger and poverty are still widespread years after the great famine of the 1990s.  Defectors from North Korea say those inside have little or no knowledge of the outside world except the lies told by the regime.  The defectors are working to reverse that information blackout.  But can they change the mindset of a people long deluded by a paranoid and reclusive regime? Michael Gerson, welcome to Ideas In Action.
MICHAEL GERSON:
Great to be with you.
JIM GLASSMAN:
You know, you-- you just recently wrote a column in The Washington Post about North Korean defectors, exiles-- who are now living in South Korea.  What drew you to this story?
MICHAEL GERSON:
Well, it's one of the great flash points of the world.  I mean, the tensions are unbelievably high.  North Korea recently sunk a South Korean ship that's, really, an act of war in many ways.  But it's an interesting foreign policy issue because the real progress, I think, is likely to come there not through pressuring the North Korean government, which is completely impervious to international pressure, as far as I can determine.
But really through ending the isolation of the North Korean people-- so they can see the outside world.  They can understand the circumstance they're in.  They can begin to compare.  And so, talking with people who made that transition that essentially had their eyes opened was very, very interesting.  These are often people that now want to duplicate that experience for others in North Korea.
JIM GLASSMAN:
They had their eyes opened, but while they were in North Korea--
MICHAEL GERSON:
Right.
JIM GLASSMAN:
--They were completely shut off from the rest of the world?  I mean, how do, you can't even imagine how that works in an Internet age.  What was it like talking to people like that?
MICHAEL GERSON:
Well, ten years ago, they were, very much were completely shut off from the outside world.  There was almost no-- information coming in other than the propaganda of the regime, which is absurd, but widely believed.  Because there is no alternatives out there.  That's changed quite a bit in the last 10 years.
JIM GLASSMAN:
So, how-- how are they getting information?
MICHAEL GERSON:
Well, initially, you know, people were getting-- there are still efforts to put up balloons to carry leaflets into, into North Korea.  Those efforts are ongoing.  And it's interesting that one of the people I talked to, Mr. Kim, was in-- influenced by that.
See-- seeing a leaflet showing people in South Korea who were wearing different kinds of clothing from one another.  So, for him, that was an eye-opening experience, just to see a leaflet showing that people could choose their own clothing.  But that's the kind of level of oppression that you're dealing with in North Korea that such a thing would be a revelation.
KIM SEONG-MIN:
Whenever we woke up, we found the leaflets from South Korea dusting the whole area.  There were so many fallen.  From those leaflets, we could learn how many cars were produced annually in South Korea and about their national income.
What is still clear in my memory was the picture of South Koreans in all different colorful clothes gathered in somewhere called Yeoh Wei Doh Square (PH), either for demonstrations or meetings.  I remember their appearance was so colorful and fashionable.  Later, by listening to the radio more, I learned that South Korea is not the place of hunger and poverty as was loudly advertised in North Korea and is not the country that kills all North Korean defectors after the so-called investigation.
JIM GLASSMAN:
What about radio?
MICHAEL GERSON:
Well-- you know, there are, there's short-wave radio-- the efforts that-- that are made to-- to try to influence there.  And there are, people can get little radios, which are smuggled into the country or bought from China now.  Because the Chinese border is a long border with North Korea.  It's relatively open and, you know, be it through corruption.
JIM GLASSMAN:
Right.
MICHAEL GERSON:
And-- and so people can get that, can get radios.  But maybe the most important aspect is now that people can get cell phones-- essentially, Chinese cell phones that work on Chinese cell phone networks across the border.  That doesn't reach all of Korea, but it reaches much of that border region and that's a big factor now.
JIM GLASSMAN:
So, the people you talked to are dissidents, I mean, are people who are really trying to change the system in North Korea.  How do they do that?  How do they communicate?  Are they, is it all by making phone calls or-- and what are they actually doing?
MICHAEL GERSON:
Well, some of it really is-- most of it is really an information campaign.  They're trying to get information in North Korea now.  The traditional way is that they sometimes did that in the past where actually sewing things into their clothing to get across the border.  Information out of North Korea, information in.
But now, you recently, for example, have had some executions in North Korean-- prison camps that were actually captured on video and gotten out-- on the internet, okay.  So that's-- that's a big change.  I-- I think the North Korean method of social control is coming up against new technology where you can essentially get, for example, bibles and-- and Christian material, which is one of the main-- motivations for people getting information across the border.  You can get whole libraries on-- on a zip drive now.  And that-- that's a big change.
JIM GLASSMAN:
So, is there any evidence that things are changing within North Korea?  That is to say, are there, are there more people there who understand what's happening in the rest of the world?
MICHAEL GERSON:
It's, you know, to some extent, it's hard to determine.  There's no dissent in North Korea because it would mean immediate imprisonment, okay.  But awareness seems to be increasing along with technology which seems to be the-- the seed of dissent, the beginning.  Now, the one large factor that was recently is that they did a currency devaluation in-- in North Korea, which under normal circumstances would be unquestioned.  But this really took a lot of the wealth that people had accumulated, okay.
JIM GLASSMAN:
Oh, right, it was devastating, it was.
MICHAEL GERSON:
It was devastating to people's savings, to other things.  And there was real dissent.  The government actually had to back down from the devaluation, modify the terms-- and then ended up executing someone who had been involved in the-- in the devaluation itself.  A lot of the North Korean-- dissidents believe that was an important moment where you actually had grumbling at the market, you know, with people that saw their whole wealth-- confiscated by the government.
And, you know, North Korea is an officially socialist society, but it's really a corrupt market-oriented economy, okay.  All of the real economic activity is done outside the official channels of-- of the socialist system.  And so, people do have some wealth in those circumstances.  And they reacted very, very badly when it was attempted to be taken away.  And the government had to respond.  The people who watch this situation find that unprecedented in any many ways.
JIM GLASSMAN:
I mean, you ju-- you talk about the long border with China-- is there, are there lots of people actually moving back and forth across that border, in South Korea?
MICHAEL GERSON:
Well, I wouldn't say lots of people.  But because the system there is so corrupt, we view it as a totalitarian system, but in many ways, it's a kleptocracy, okay.  I mean, the corruption is rampant.  It's really in-- like a regime run by a mafia family, okay.  That's the Kim family there.
' And so-- it is possible, if you have the money to get across the border.  There are actually brokers who do this fairly regularly now, who can get, if-- if you have a relative in South Korea that can pay, it's often possible to get someone out of North Korea.  But that's not an option for most people.  But it-- but the brokers do have an effective-- market in human beings.
JIM GLASSMAN:
But then what happens when you get to China?  The Chinese-- are not happy to see people moving across the border from North Korea.
MICHAEL GERSON:
That-- that's actually true-- you know, the estimates vary, but a significant portion of those people who get out of North Korea are-- are arrested and questioned by the-- by the Chinese government and returned to often, to camps and death.  I mean, there's no question.  They are complicit in-- in this-- in many ways.
But that's the Chinese government.  There are also a lot of-- brokers and others who are Chinese that-- operate what is essentially a market-oriented underground railroad.
JIM GLASSMAN:
Could you tell us a-- a story involving one of the people that you interviewed about how that person actually got out of North Korea and went in South Korea?
MICHAEL GERSON:
Well, I mean, Mr. Kim, one man that I interviewed, was-- I-- officer in the military-- had escaped to the North.  Was captured and questioned by the Chinese and returned to North Korea where he was sent to the camp and tortured.
KIM SEONG-MIN:
Normally, they beat people real hard for basic investigation or any dissatisfaction, or when they caught somebody hiding identification like myself.  Their beating and torture is beyond imagination.  What happened next was I was sent to my previous unit under escort.  On the way to my former army unit for punishment, I broke the train window, jumped off and escaped northward for nine days.  Riding on top of the train.  Riding on an ox cart.  And sometimes on foot.  Finally, again, I reached the border, crossed it.  And after 40 days, sorry, 50 days, I set foot on Chinese soil again and began a defector's life there.
MICHAEL GERSON:
It's that kind of story that, you know, how committed these-- these people are-- to-- and then to go into South Korea and devote their lives to then providing information-- you know, about the regime to the-- to the, you know, people they left.
JIM GLASSMAN:
And does the South Korean government support the activities of these North Koreans?
MICHAEL GERSON:
Well, it's been one of the problems-- you know, you talk to the-- author of "The Aquariums of Pyongyang", the South Korean government actually has pre-- prevented in the past-- North Koreans dissidents from going on television, from getting attention.  Because it was seen a provocative-- now, that's changed with-- a new president in-- in South Korea.
It's-- there's a much more forward-leaning policy now that-- that has ended the ATM policy essentially said you only get money if you do certain things rather than preemptive concessions.  And there are government officials now who are beginning to cooperate on a broader information campaign-- in the north, which was abandoned for a decade.
JIM GLASSMAN:
You-- you mention this book, "Aquariums of Pyongyang," which is really an extraordinary book.
MICHAEL GERSON:
Right.
JIM GLASSMAN:
About a-- a young, well, he-- he was, went into the camps when, I think, he was nine years old.
MICHAEL GERSON:
Right.
JIM GLASSMAN:
And managed to escape.  And you interviewed him.  Kang Chol-Hwan.
KANG CHOL-HWAN:
In North Korea when it is confirmed that anyone is involved in dissident activities, he is immediately executed.  In addition to that, the whole family is sent to gulags.  So, the experiences of other countries that achieved freedom and democracy are completely different from North Korea.
Because it is an extremely oppressive state, things cannot come out on the surface.  But beneath the surface, a number of people are conducting a lot of different resistance activities.  They are listening to radios and spreading this outside information to others.  Forming groups and conducting a variety of anti-Kim Jong-il activities, such as writing graffiti, posting anti-Kim Jong-il posters.  Distributing leaflets and so on.  These are possible only when hidden.  They cannot come out on the surface because nobody can avoid execution.
JIM GLASSMAN:
He's been very critical of the South Korean government in the past.  Has he changed his mind?
MICHAEL GERSON:
I-- I think he has to some extent.  There's-- there's a shift that's gone on.  It was the second time I'd been with him because I'd been with him in the Oval Office with the President of the United States.  I once worked for George W. Bush-- who-- met with him in the Oval Office, gave him a lot of exposure.
JIM GLASSMAN:
What did he say about the effect of him meeting with President Bush?
MICHAEL GERSON:
Well, I-- I-- he-- he says that it had a marvelous transforming effect in a certain way.  Basically, because at the time the South Kean-- Korean government had-- wanted very little to do with such dissidents, okay.  And so this exposure raised the profile of these issues.
KANG CHOL-HWAN:
To me personally, it was a great honor.  And in fact, our dissident and democracy movement for North Korea going beyond the normal civil support was greatly encouraged by the personal meeting and support from the United States president, the world leader.  And not only myself, but also the majority of North Korean people, who are living under suppression by the regime and are in a way very much excited at the fact that the United States President honored me to meet him.
That's because for a half century, the United States has been their sworn enemy in North Korea.  And from such a country, a guy like myself, who is the worst victim of its society, was able to visit the White House and meet the President.  This itself was a fresh shock to the North Korean people.  And gave them a real hope.
MICHAEL GERSON:
The-- the dissidents I'd talked to also said that the President's forthright-- descriptions of the North Korean regime, President Bush's descriptions, as being evil-- as being involved in profound violations of human rights, was-- was encouraging to-- North Korean dissidents in-- in very practical ways.  It's often easy, particularly, in a situation like this, for these-- dissidents to feel alone and isolated.
Even in South Korea, there were members of, say, I-- I think it was the South Korean Socialist or Communist Party, who would protest their activities in South Korea-- because they thought they were provocative.  And against the-- the North Korean government.  Would force them to move their radio operations from place to place because of persecution within South Korea, okay.  And so, I think a statement by the President endorsing this kind of approach, an American president, makes a big different to dissidents who often feel isolated.
JIM GLASSMAN:
Is-- is there a way to-- to deter the development and potential use of nuclear weapons in North Korea thought the activities of dissidents?  Could there be-- a change, either in the regime or in the behavior of the regime as a result of what they're doing?
MICHAEL GERSON:
Well, it's-- it's a big debate.  A debate on whether there could be reform within the-- the North Korean regime that might put them more on a Chinese path, okay?  Or whether there essentially has to be an overthrow of the regime in some ways.
I think there's very little prospect, from my own experience talking with South Korean officials that-- that deal with this, of internal reform.  I think that this regime really recognizes that if they do a China-style reform, they're going to end up with an East Germany-kind of result, okay.  There's only, you know, you're talking about half a dozen people that really run this country, this criminal regime that are going to end up like Mussolini.
JIM GLASSMAN:
Right.
MICHAEL GERSON:
If-- if they make con-- significant concessions.  It really does leave the option, the main realistic option, being this kind of information campaign, by which--  you know, you get genuine dissent, the beginnings of genuine dissent in that country.  There's plenty of reason for it.
JIM GLASSMAN:
Well, for example, I mean-- there's-- there's a lack, a severe lack of food, right?  I mean, did you hear stories about famine and-- and-- and why?
MICHAEL GERSON:
Well, particularly, a few years ago.  And they, it's sobering.  Because they-- they lost hundreds of thousands of people.  Maybe millions of people in a famine.  And that didn't lead to the overthrow of the regime, okay.  I mean, this is a-- you know, a very tightly controlled circumstance-- there-- there's not gre-- you know, the food shortages are not as acute as they were.  But you still have, I mean, the dissidents told me, you still have people who-- you know, children and others who lost family members in this, in-- in these famines.
JIM GLASSMAN:
Then why doesn't the popul-- I mean, if it-- if the population is controlled by a few people, or a few people who are benefiting from it.  And the conditions are so terrible, why isn't there change generated from below?
MICHAEL GERSON:
Well, it's the big question.  And it-- but I think it's because the regime has successfully controlled the mental atmosphere of its citizens, the kind of psychological atmosphere of its citizens.  They use a variety of techniques.  The big lie.  I mean, they essentially, many people, these dissidents were convinced that if they were to flee the country to the south that they would be executed by the South Koreans, for example, okay-- you know.
The view of conditions in the outside world is very limited-- so it's an information totalitarianism that-- that goes on.  That's why-- an information campaign may be the most practical way to approach this.  In the U.S., maybe Japan, the South Korean government.  Engaging in a much more creative use of technology, I think, is necessary in the-- in these circumstances.
Not just the, you know, the kind of the bull horns they have on the border, you know, with propaganda at the DMZ.  You-- you really have to go the next step on this information campaign and get people real information in North Korea.  That's what a lot of these dissidents are trying to do.
JIM GLASSMAN:
But they don't have ways to receive that information other than radios and the-- and the North Koreans-- you're not allowed, of course, to listen to something like BBC or Voice of America-- and I-- I would assume that not too many people in-- in North Korea have-- computers.  They're not able to use the internet.
MICHAEL GERSON:
Right.  There is an upper class in-- in North Korea that has-- access, some access to computers-- North Korea is one of the only countries in the world, and I think it may be the only country that has not claimed its international inner-- internet address.
JIM GLASSMAN:
Oh, right.  (LAUGHS)
MICHAEL GERSON:
Okay, the one point, you know, dot-N-K.
JIM GLASSMAN:
Right, there is none, right.
MICHAEL GERSON:
And, you know, so there-- there is an obvious attempt to try to restrict information like that.  I think that the-- for, particularly, for the educated class, and there is one in North Korea, with a little more exposure, that, you know, you're talking about zip drives and other things that would allow them information to-- you know, that-- that they don't currently have.  For the people themselves, though, a lot of these-- these dissidents, of Mr. Park, for example, I interviewed, they-- who do the balloons.
JIM GLASSMAN:
Right, right.
MICHAEL GERSON:
With the-- they put a dollar bill.  They put a, you know, a leaflet inside, okay-- and they provide information about-- the corruption of the regime.
PARK SANG-HAK:
Last year alone, 3,200 North Korean defectors came to South Korea.  Simply from these people, we can confirm clearly how much impact the balloon leaflets are creating in North Korean society.  And how frightened and desperate the North Korean regime is about the launching.
And secondly, until recently, our leaflets to North Korea had not easily provoked accusations from the authorities of the North Korean army and official media, who are so acute and open now.  They have already held 10 South-North military talks to deal with this problem, threatening the lives of those who are sending leaflets.
Furthermore, in a statement, North Korea pointed a finger at our organization, Fighters for Free North Korea, denouncing that the betrayers who had run away to South Korea are using critical propaganda against their dear General Kim Jong-il.  And the contents of our leaflets, as was said before, are mostly criticizing the military first, dictatorship of Kim Jong-il.  Considering the worsening economic difficulties and mentality of the North Korean people, we began to include in the leaflets from last year and the year before, U.S. one dollar notes, the highest denomination, 5,000 North Korean won and five or ten Chinese Yuan notes.
This was widely spread through word of mouth in North Korea, which says that one-dollar notes and 5,000 won are flying in with leaflets.  To collect the money, more people are searching for leaflets, which provides more chances to read them.  It is seriously damaging and shaking the North Korean system from inside.
JIM GLASSMAN:
What can the United States do to-- to further the cause of regime change behavior in North Korea?
MICHAEL GERSON:
I do think the most promising area, and I got some of this from the dissidents themselves, but also from South Koreans, the long-term effort, the ten-year effort that's going to make a difference in this circumstance, is when North Koreans know more about the outside world and the failure of their own regime.
You know, the North Korean regime is a communist regime, but it's primarily a nationalist regime.  And, you know, they-- they sell this argument that they're the only authentic representative of Korean identity.  And just to inform people that there's another Korea out there that's successful, while North Korea itself is a total failure as a government and a society-- would, I think, create serious tensions in that society, you know, creative tensions that could-- that could lead to future change.
JIM GLASSMAN:
And your sense in talking to these exiles is that most North Koreans don't know that.  They don't know that within very few miles from where they are standing there is this hugely prosperous and free country?
MICHAEL GERSON:
I think that-- I think it's fair to say that many do not know-- it's hard to gauge in a certain way.  Many, of course, live in fear.  It's-- it's a, you know, highly oppressive totalitarian society.  And-- so, even if they do know, it's very hard to-- to express that.  They just live in denial trying to-- trying to-- take care of your own life in a very difficult circumstance.  That's often the case.
The-- the interesting thing about these interviews, that I asked each of them, is when does that moment take place?  That moment of enlightenment or change?  Like, this is now.  You know, I'm different.
JIM GLASSMAN:
Right, right, right.
MICHAEL GERSON:
I see the world differently, okay.  And it varied in-- in these cases.  But in many ways, it came from just basic knowledge of the outside world.  Sometimes through the-- the experience of oppression.
One other gentleman I talked to, talked about how he had seen, had been fairly high in the regime, and had been at a train station during the famine, okay.  And saw a pile of bodies which was normal at the time.  But literally, just a pile of bodies left there, where there were people gathered around which was not normal.
KIM SEONG-MIN:
At first, I took it as not special because I could see such scenes any time passing by or traveling.  But there were so many people gathered, so I approached nearer.  A pile of corpses as stiff as firewood was covered with army blankets.  I saw lice, (I'm not sure whether you have the same in America) were running in stripes.  In two stripes.  Later, I learned that after death, the lice usually all come out to escape the body.  They form stripes.  It was disgusting.  Whenever I recall it, I still cannot eat anything.  While people are starving to death like that, Kim Jong-il and his close friends, and those defending his rule, are for sure leading extravagant lives on the other end.
MICHAEL GERSON:
That's the kind of thing that can make a big difference.  We saw in Europe, you know, in Eastern Europe-- that people can live for decades in oppression.  And then overnight, something clicks.  You know, among a broad group of people that changes the nature of society.  That's what these dissidents are hoping for in their own country.
JIM GLASSMAN:
Thank you, Michael Gerson.
MICHAEL GERSON:
Great, thank you.
JIM GLASSMAN:
And before we go, I want to remind viewers that you can catch Ideas In Action whenever and wherever you choose.  To watch complete shows, just go to our website:  IdeasInActionTV.com or download a podcast from the iTunes store.  And that's it for this week's Ideas In Action.  I'm Jim Glassman. Thanks for watching.  (MUSIC)
ANNOUNCER:
For more information, visit us at IdeasInActionTV.com.  Funding for Ideas In Action is provided by Investor's Business Daily.  Every stock market cycle is led by America's never-ending stream of innovative new companies and inventions.  Investor's Business Daily helps investors find these new leaders as they emerge.  More information is available at Investors.com.
This program is a production of Grace Creek Media and the George W. Bush Institute, which are solely responsible for its content.
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Michael Gerson

Washington Post Columnist

Michael Gerson is a columnist who writes twice weekly for the Washington Post about politics, global development, religion and foreign policy. He serves on various councils and boards, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, Bread for the World and the Initiative for Global Development. He was a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) from 2006 to 2009. Prior to CFR, Mr. Gerson served as a policy adviser and chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush from 2000 to 2006. During his White House tenure, he was a key advocate for the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the President's Malaria Initiative (PMI), and the fight against global sex trafficking. Mr. Gerson joined George Bush's presidential campaign in early 1999 as chief speechwriter and a senior policy adviser. Before that, he was a senior politics editor at U.S. News & World Report. Mr. Gerson has worked as a speechwriter for Jack Kemp and Bob Dole, during the 1996 presidential campaign. He was also Senator Dan Coats’ Policy Director. Mr. Gerson has authored a book – “Heroic Conservatism” - published by HarperOne in 2007.

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