Kim Joo-Il, a former North Korean military officer, tells DW about the shortcomings of the North Korean system, about how he defected and about the importance of education.
Kim Joo-Il joined the ISHR (International Society for Human Rights) press conference at this year's Global Media Forum in Bonn, Germany, to talk about the importance of education. A former North Korean military officer, Mr. Kim defected from North Korea into China in 2005. He went to various countries in Southeast Asia before travelling to the UK and receiving asylum there. Currently, he works for an organization in the UK, the Free NK News Paper, for the promotion of human rights in North Korea.
DW: It is a real pleasure for me to be able to speak with you. Just now at the press conference, you were talking about brainwashing. Could you describe the kind of brainwashing that takes place?
Kim Joo-Il: The standard curriculum in the North Korean school life is so designed that 60 percent of the curriculum is devoted to brainwashing about the dictatorship of the three generations Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il and the current leader Kim Jong-Un. And two days per week, there are brainwashing programs and once a week, on the weekends, every student has to self-criticize himself if he receives special honors from the brainwashing program.
Education is just one aspect of the educational system. The element more crucial to the system is the "organization life," which the North Korean children join at the age of nine. In these organizations, they live together with their classmates or comrades, receive training and learn this brainwashing propaganda physically and mentally.
The North Korean curriculum is cleverly designed to allow the brainwashing input into the classroom. For example, a typical problem in mathematics would be: "There are 10 American tanks and the North Korean army destroyed five of them. How many are left?" So even in math class, children are brainwashed.
About your military career - did you join because you were patriotic in the beginning?
No. In North Korea, every male citizen has to enter the army at the age of 17. They finish their military duty after 10 to 13 years, usually at the age of 30. After that, only soldiers from a good family background or soldiers who have proven loyalty to the military are selected to attend an officer's school so they can be promoted as I was.
You began your speech at the press conference describing how you became sceptical of the system. What was the turning point? When did you start questioning it?
North Koreahad a bad economic crisis from 1997 to 2000. As a result of the crisis, up to 3 million North Koreans died of starvation. The effects of it were even felt in the military; many soldiers suffered from the famine and ran away from the military. Thirty percent of them starved to death. At that point - after learning in school and in my childhood that North Korea was one of the wealthiest countries - I asked myself: How can people starve to death in such a well-off country like North Korea?
Was it dangerous to question the system? What would happen to the people who started to stray from the ideology?
In North Korea, the most dangerous people to the regime are those who are suspicious of the system. They are referred to as the "main enemy," which is a term normally applied to outside countries such as South Korea, the US and Japan. If you are going to raise these questions and discuss them with other people, then you are considered a political criminal. As a soldier, you can be put to death without receiving a trial.
So as it was very dangerous to share my thoughts with my family. I didn't even tell my parents that I was planning to escape. That is what I regret the most - that I did not tell my parents about my plans and that I couldn't even say goodbye to them.
When was it that you decided to leave? Was there one special event that made you draw the line? And how did you leave? A lot of people don't manage to make it across the border alive. How did you manage this?
To answer the first question, North Korean soldiers during their first 10 years of duty don't have any vacation or receive any visits. Nor can they sleep outside the camp. They just live in the military camps. They don't know about the real North Korean situation. I became an officer when the famine was at its peak. Many soldiers had run away from the camp and I was the one tasked with the job of finding and arresting them. So I had the opportunity to travel around the regions and into the provinces where I learned about the real situation in North Korea. That is when I started asking myself if society was so good after all.
In 2005, I decided to escape. As an officer, I had the privilege of taking a vacation. After the daughter of my sister died of starvation I decided to escape.
To answer your second question, I got to the border of North Korea, to the river, by train. It was a summer night in August. It was a full moon on my first night there. So I postponed my escape because it was very bright. The guards would have seen me. As the river is wide and the water is very deep, it was very difficult to cross the river. There were rocks and stones on the riverbed. If you step on them, the water plunges. So the border guards might hear or notice something. I still had on my soldier's uniform, so I took off my jacket and put it on the stones to muffle the sound of my feet on the rocks. I moved 80 centimeters step by step. In total, it took me four hours to cross the river. I was lucky not to get arrested; otherwise, I would have been deported or shot on the spot.
The motto of this year's Global Media Forum is the importance of education. Why is it so important for you that people know about your story and know about the North Korean system? And how do you want to inform people about it?
The reason why the dictatorship is working in North Korea is not only because North Korea is isolated from the outside world. It is because of the education the North Koreans are receiving from their childhood on. And because of this education and being isolated, their consciousness is paralyzed. So contrary to "normal" people, they don't have any creativity or curiosity to see new things or to think about new things because they are paralyzed. In my opinion, the most crucial element in a dictatorship is education. Right now, the North Koreans are like robots. If the government pushes a button, then the people obey and do what they are told.
In short, the education problem is directly connected with the abuse of human rights in North Korea.
Interview: Sarah Berning
Editor: John Blau