The living conditions inside North Korea has been cited as among the worst in the world. According US State Department’s annual human rights report, the North Korean government routinely subjects its citizens to rigid controls over many aspects of their lives. The list includes the denial of the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, religion, movement, and workers rights. “Reports continued of a vast network of political prison camps in which conditions were often harsh, life threatening, and included forced and compulsory labor” the annual report stated. The report further states that there were numerous instances that the government committed arbitrary and unlawful killings in 2014.
Defector and refugee reports also noted instances in which the government executed political prisoners, opponents of the government, repatriated defectors, and others accused of crimes. The law prescribes the death penalty for the most “serious” or “grave” cases of “anti-state” or “anti-nation” crimes, which include participating in a coup or plotting to overthrow the state, acts of terrorism for an anti-state purpose, treason (which includes defection or handing over state secrets), suppressing the people’s movement for national liberation, and “treacherous destruction,”.
Our Times’ Editor in Chief, Matthew Classen, and The Oslo Times Editor in Chief, Hatef Mohktar, had the chance to meet with a prominent North Korean defector and human rights activist, Ji Seong Ho, for an exclusive interview. This interview, through Mister Seong Ho’s translator, took place just after his highly emotional speech at the 2015 Oslo Freedom Forum, where he informed the audience of both his personal escape, as well as the human rights conditions in general, in North Korea. Here is what he had to say:
Matthew Classen: You gave an amazing speech and a compelling presentation of your experience and it was an honor listening to you at The Oslo Freedom Forum. We often times in the West hear about North Korea but we don’t have a face or story with what is behind that country. You provide that face and amazing story. So the first question that we could ask is, what are the next steps that you will take?
“Once I leave Oslo and return to South Korea, I will continue to do the work that I have been doing through my organization NAUH, which stands for ‘Now, Action, Unity and Human Rights’.
So, what we have been doing so far ranges from rescuing refugees and facilitating North Korean human rights movements and radio broadcasting. Once I go back, the one thing that I would do as a new project, is to create a radio drama show. What we do is send back the radio broadcasts to North Korea. We have a lot of North Korean defectors, who are young adults, people around my age as members in the organization, so we know what the people in North Korea want to listen to, what kind of stories that they would be interested in. So, we want to start a new project and get the word across by creating a new radio drama that is tailored to suit the younger generation in North Korea.”
Matthew Classen: So radio is still a fairly common way to transmit messages and communications into North Korea you would say?
“There are different ways of sending in messages to North Korea, but I believe that radio is probably the most common as it is less expensive than other methods. Number two, listening to radio broadcasts is much less riskier than other methods because it is basically the message that goes over the airwaves and people already have radios and they can listen to it. There is no trace of risk of being caught, for example, with any other materials from the point of view of the regime. In that sense I believe that the radio is a good way of sending outside information into North Korea.”
Matthew Classen: Now that we know that the radio is a very effective form of transmitting of communication and information, I am curious to know exactly how many people actually do listen to these types of radio programs?
“Well honestly, being North Korean we cannot go into a survey and do any sort of tabulation as to how many people listen to our radio broadcasts. Even when I was in North Korea before I escaped, a lot of my friends listened to foreign broadcasts with the radios that they had. Of course something like this cannot be publicized or talked about in public because listening to these kinds of broadcasts can have serious consequences. In that sense I cannot give you an exact number but there are a lot of people in North Korea that have access to radios and do listen to foreign broadcasts.”
Hatef Mohktar: How do you think this regime can be over thrown? As, North Korea has always maintained that they have the right to defend their sovereignty, and they would therefore never allow anyone to interfere in their national affairs, do you think North Korea will ever enjoy good relations with South Korea? And secondly there are claims that the communist ideology brings equality and justice. In that light the North Korean government claims that all human rights activists have been created by intelligence agencies, like the CIA, and another organisations. What’s your response to such claims made by the regime?
“Your first question, is a very complex and difficult question to answer. Ultimately I think the best way to remove the regime would be to continue exposing the North Korean people to information flowing from both outside to the inside of the country. It is also really up to South Korea to become the North’s Southern counter partner in terms of communicating the differences in standard of living, as well as the North’s system of government. These are the main ways that the people in North Korea can truly escape from the 70 year of brainwashing and propaganda by the regime.
Coming to your second question, I don’t think the North Korean government, and their attacks and criticism against activists like myself and other NGOs and human rights activists, deserves any sort of response nor is it worthy of any replies or response from people on our side. For example, North Korea often sends their own children abroad where they sing and dance to show the picture of humanity, and the picture that everything OK in the North Korea. So, when we deal with a regime that is built up on lies, then attacking us by calling us stooges of the CIA or other government organizations, I believe that they don’t deserve any worthy response from us.”
Hatef Mohktar: Human Right is a global phenomenon. Do you see yourself as a human rights activists, as a victim or as a freedom fighter, and how would you describe yourself in our time, in our history?
“I would describe myself as a human rights activist.”
Hatef Mohktar: When you claim to be a human rights activist, you are actually dedicating your whole life to humanity, so it would be fair to ask you, what then, are your future plans?
“So, as a human rights activist, answering your question, I don’t have a grand ambition or great big plans, for my personal well being, but my own personal goal or future goal would be to bring a spring of freedom to the people of North Korea. To give and to show to them what it’s like to live in a democratic and free society. It may sound like a grand vision right now but it is really not. I believe that just like I, myself, have received so much help and so much support when I arrived in South Korea, it is the same feeling and life that I want for the people in North Korea. I want for them to one day receive the same sort of freedom, support and help as well.”