Korean crisis: the view from defectors

SEOUL, South Korea — For North Korean defectors, Ryu Kyong Ok is much more than a reminder of home. The restaurant in central Seoul is where some come to discuss North Korea in sympathetic company as they dine on pork belly and kimchee pickles, washed down with generous quantities of soju spirit.

While the governments of North and South Korea engage in a new round of rhetoric in the wake of the attack on Yeonpyeong and Seoul’s latest firing exercises, defectors say hope is fading for a way through the diplomatic impasse, let alone for their long-held goal of reunification.

The waitresses at Ryu Kyong Ok refuse to be interviewed out of fear, they say, that their criticisms will put relatives and friends in the North at risk.

But other defectors, like Kim Hung-kwang, are openly hostile to the country they risked their lives to leave and build new ones in the South.

“The most obvious difference between the two countries is that here we have freedom, whereas in the North there is none,” said Kim, who left in 2002 and is now president of the pressure group North Korean Intellectuals Solidarity.

“Human rights are guaranteed and no one dies of hunger here, but in North Korea those basic needs are met only if you work incredibly hard.”

Yet life for many of the 20,000 defectors in South Korea contrasts dramatically with the one they initially learned about watching illicit screenings of TV dramas or on radios ballooned in from across the border.

Though they initially receive financial assistance, lack of education and discrimination among employers means that defectors earn well below the average wage in South Korea, the world’s 15th biggest economy, and almost one-fifth are in debt.

The hardship experienced by defectors, say South Korean government officials, pales in comparison to the lives they left behind.

“It’s very difficult for them to make the transition to living in South Korea,” said Kyung Kyu Sang, senior staff director of the governing Grand National Party’s foreign affairs, trade and unification committee.

“That’s partly because they come from a country that doesn’t understand democracy or respect global standards. The people of North Korea want liberty, but it has been denied them by the Kim dynasty.”

Kyung says the recent rise in the number of North Koreans fleeing across the border to China is a symptom of rising discontent with the regime’s disastrous handling of the economy, and the prospect that power could soon be passed to another member of the Kim family.

“You only have to look at how China has changed to see that the North Korean situation is a tragedy,” said Kyung. “China is normalizing its society and economy. That’s the direction in which history has taken it. The North Korean people are unable to effect regime change, but history will take them in the right direction, too.”

For now, history appears to be on the side of the Kim dynasty. Defectors in Seoul say that plans by the country’s leader, Kim Jong Il, to hand over power to his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, are likely to succeed.

Lee Hye Kyung, a pharmacist who fled the North eight years ago, believes the succession is inevitable, but she is confident that the regime will eventually collapse.

“Some South Koreans doubt the succession can go ahead successfully, but as a North Korean, I believe it will, because the people have been brainwashed for decades. The transfer of power is going to happen, and there is nothing we can do about it.

“The attack on Yeonpyeong was a sign that the North Korean regime is worried about its own survival. It showed the world just how desperate it is, and I believe it doesn’t have long left.

“It was done to justify the succession plans, to prove to the North Korean people that the regime is still strong. It advertises the attack as a major accomplishment.”

The succession plans are unfolding as a new front opens in the propaganda wars between the neighbors, estranged since their last war ended in a truce — but no peace agreement — in 1953.

South Korean ruling party officials said today that a giant Christmas tree near the border with the North would stay illuminated until Jan. 8, the birthday of Jong Un, who is believed to be in his late 20s.

The nearly 8-foot-tall tree, easily visible from the North, was switched on this week for the first time in seven years. Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, reported plans to float over 100,000 anti-Kim leaflets in helium “truth balloons" on the leader-in-waiting’s birthday.

Seoul has also activated loudspeakers that the North has threatened to bomb if they begin broadcasting propaganda across the 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone separating the two countries. The South had threatened to restart the broadcasts after the March sinking of the Cheonan, breaking a 2004 agreement to cease the cross-border propaganda wars.

Kim agrees that the North’s recent provocations were designed not only to squeeze concessions from Seoul and Washington, but also to secure the Kim dynasty’s power base for another generation.

“The important thing to remember about Kim Jong Un continuing the succession process from his father, and his grandfather before him, is that three generations of North Koreans will have been enslaved by the Kim family,” he said.

North Korea watchers believe that the North’s provocations of recent months are a sign that the transfer of power may not have met with universal approval among military and party elites.

“It is hard to know what the other party elites have in mind,” said Ha Tae Keung, president of Seoul-based Open Radio for North Korea.

“Officially they have to support Jong Un, or risk being executed,” said Ha, who draws on a secret network of informers on the North and testimony from new defectors. “But some are worried, particularly older members who have been loyal to Kim Jong Il, and wonder how his son will treat them.”

But for Kim Chul Woong, a former pianist with North Korea’s prestigious state symphony orchestra, the Yeonpyeong shelling was a crass attempt to grab the attention of its neighbor, and the wider world.

“It is just a performance,” said Kim, who fled the North in 2002 to pursue his dream of becoming a jazz musician. “And the South Korean government and people have allowed themselves to be fooled into paying attention. It’s ridiculous.”