Defectors skeptical of North Korea’s denuclearization move

By Park Han-na
  • Published : Feb 24, 2019 - 17:54
  • Updated : Feb 24, 2019 - 17:54

North Korean defectors living in South Korea hope that the second summit between Washington and Pyongyang this week will bring about a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, but doubts remain regarding Kim Jong-un’s commitment to departing from the Kim family playbook.

“Denuclearization is not just about giving up nuclear weapons, he (Kim Jong-un) has to put down all the power he has. We know as soon as the nuclear arsenal is gone, the dictatorial regime will face an imminent collapse,” Kim Hyeong-soo, who co-founded Stepping Stones, a nonprofit group fighting to ameliorate prison conditions in North Korea, told The Korea Herald.

Korean People’s Army soldiers gather as they prepare to pay their respects before the statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il as part of celebrations marking the birthday of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, known as the “Day of the Shining Star,” on Mansu hill in Pyongyang on Feb. 16. (AFP-Yonhap)

Kim, who had served as a provincial government official in the North, is studying toward a juris doctor degree at Dongkuk University in Seoul in the belief that security and law are the areas that will play a great role when the two Koreas unite one day. He fled to the South in 2009. His mother’s failed defection attempt resulted in death in prison after she was caught at the Chinese border.

He hopes this peace momentum, driven by a thaw in relations between the two Koreas and this week’s US-North Korea summit, will enable defectors here to send money or freely call their family members in the North but he is pessimistic about the chances of that happening.

“I would say more than 90 percent of North Koreans are still not aware of the outside world and worship their leader as an almighty god,” he said.

If Seoul, Washington and Pyongyang actively engage in exchanges and cooperation after a series of nuclear talks, information about the outside world will inevitably flow into the North and eventually spark public outrage.

According to Kim, the North Korean regime sends people to prison camps for calling people in China, and those who listen to South Korean radio programs could be shot to death.

“If North Korea’s general population finally comes to realize how much their country is lagging behind its neighbors, their confusion will quickly turn into an outburst of anger,” Kim said.

The annual per capita income in North Korea is about $1,300, less than one-twentieth that of the South, according to the Bank of Korea.

Lost in translation

The absence of a clear definition of denuclearization in the agreement signed during the first meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore in June was one of defectors’ biggest concerns. 

People gather as they wait to pay their respects before the statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il as part of celebrations marking the birthday of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, known as the “Day of the Shining Star,” on Mansu hill in Pyongyang on Feb. 16. (AFP-Yonhap)

Jang Se-yeoul, 50, who fled to the South in 2008, said there is a wide gap between Pyongyang and Washington in their interpretations of denuclearization.

“Because the US is one of the largest possessors of nuclear weapons, residents in the North think that the US deployed nuclear arms in the South. In that sense, they believe that nuclear threats will be completely gone only when the US withdraws its forces from South Korea,” he said. In stark contrast to his view, the Trump administration asserted that Kim Jong-un accepted his country’s “final, fully verified denuclearization.”

Kim Hyeong-soo said what North Korea fears the most is the US nuclear umbrella and the US’ ability to threaten the North.

“The North Korean regime teaches students that every single US military personnel stationed in South Korea carry small nuclear backpacks,” Kim said.

While US tactical nuclear weapons were removed from South Korean territory at the end of the Cold War, North Korea has for years complained about the US nuclear umbrella defending South Korea and Japan.

Deeply-rooted hereditary succession

The Kim family has ruled North Korea for 70 years. The Kim family and the top cadre of the Workers’ Party, who are accustomed to a standard of living on par with the South Korean middle class, stand to lose the most if the regime collapses.

Jang said the regime encourages children to follow their parents’ career path -- whether a nuclear scientist or diplomat -- to minimize changes to its bureaucratic structures, build up technologies and sharpen foreign policies.

Jang, founder of human rights organization Solidarity for Unification of North Korean, decided to leave the communist state after being demoted from a college professor to a power plant worker. He was demoted because he watched a South Korean TV drama series with his colleagues.

“Some people look down on North Korea’s negotiation skills and expect that big powers like the US will always have the upper hand. This is a country that has advanced diplomatic plans and strategies under one family’s rule for decades,” he said.

In normal states, almost everything changes when a new administration inaugurates but North Korea has never been disrupted by such political transitions or faced with disagreements from opposition parties, he added.

“Kim Jong-un is an upgraded version of his father and grandfather. He knows exactly what the international community wants from him.”

By Park Han-na (