Adapted from the broadcast audio segment; use the audio player to listen to the story in its entirety.
Park Choong-Sik could be a typical Korean businessman. In his crisp-pressed suit and tie, chic black-framed glasses and hair coifed into stylish spikes, the 28-year-old easily blends into the crowds of the well-dressed in the South Korean capital of Seoul. But Mr. Park’s slight stature and the subtle weariness in his eyes show that something is a little bit off for someone his age.
For most Koreans, the mindset is being part of the group and adherence to the norm. Anything different is hard to accept. When Park tells of his plight, of escaping North Korea at age 14, he knows that blending into South Korean society seamlessly can only be just a façade.
Park defected from North Korea on January 13, 1997. He says the main reason was that North Korea started suffering from food shortages and financial difficulties in 1994.
“Many people perished from famine after that time. More than two million people fled to China.”
Park says that he had to drop out of school at age 12 in order to work to get enough food for himself and his younger sister – his only family. His mother died when he was five after the birth of his sister. His father died from a leg injury just two years later.
One day, a friend of the family helped Park and his sister escape to China. “It took 15 days by train,” he says, “we were able to get to the border because my father’s friend, a military officer, helped us. When my father’s friend helped us cross the border, there were no soldiers. Given the situation, I guess he used his connections.”
Park didn’t know anyone in China. He sought and received help from many of the ethnic Koreans that live in the area of Northern China, which straddles the border between the two countries.
After living in China for about three years, he was able to board a plane to South Korea with a forged passport.
In the South, he was able to graduate from high school. After a brief sojourn in Japan for college, he returned to Seoul last year.
Mr. Park now works alongside the 300-some other North Korean defectors at North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity (NKIS), a refugee NGO and rights group. It’s a fairly young group, now heading into its fourth year.
The fact that he’s from North Korea gives him a certain advantage in his work — trying to get information from North Korea. In fact, Park says, “South Koreans cannot do it. There’s no one who can do it except us.”
There are an estimated twenty-four thousand North Korean defectors living in the south. Many of them, like Park, work at NGOs like NKIS or other groups working towards greater freedom and accessibility to information about the mostly reclusive north.
Hyun In-Ae is the Vice-Director of NKIS and also a defector from the North. She says that understanding the North from the outside can be difficult because of the iron grip the regime has on information.
But, she says, it’s not all lies. “North Korea tends to overstate its achievements. It’s not that it lies about something it didn’t accomplish. When things are not helpful, they just abandon them and make a small accomplishment huge. When you look at North Korea through its newspapers, it seems like a great place to live.”
Some are more hesitant in their views. Chris Green is the manager of International Affairs at DailyNK, an online news source about North Korea. They have several defectors on staff.
In the short term, he says, “I think the regime prefers nothing to happen because they’re emphasizing on the propaganda that we should follow Kim Jong-Il’s last instructions, finish the work of Kim Jong-Il, and complete the revolution to the end. All of which emphasizes that you shouldn’t change.”
Tim Peters, founder of the North Korean refugee aid group Helping Hands Korea, believes there is an opportunity for change.
“Steam is building inside North Korean society and people are deeply disenchanted of the Kim family regime. They do not think that a 28-year-old who [went to] middle school in Switzerland will be capable leader of their country so I think they’re seriously looking at other alternatives.”
But, for the time being, Kim Jong-Un is the de facto leader of North Korea. Refugees like Park Choong-Sik hope that the regime change will bring some reforms.
– Reported by Lisa Schroeder for America Abroad