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Reddit AMA with Mr Kang Chol Hwan, November 14th 2014 (UTC)

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Recently our Executive Director, Kang Chol-hwan, participated in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session on Reddit. He was able to engage a large audience by speaking about his life in a prison camp, defecting to South Korea, and working on bringing free media into North Korea. His session reached approximately 47,000 people and reached the #2 spot on Reddit’s front page! Additionally, several news sources wrote about his AMA in various different languages. Below we have included the transcript, as published on Reddit, for your viewing pleasure. We want to thank everyone who came out and interacted with Mr. Kang! He really enjoyed the experience and was thrilled to be able to share his story with so many people.


Q: What was most surprising to learn once you got out?

A: When I crossed the river, I came to a village, and when they served me dinner, I was shocked to see that there was so much food! And in South Korea, when I was buying a toothbrush, there were ten types of toothbrushes. Which one did I have to choose? I just couldn’t believe that there were so many varieties of the same product that served the same function.

Q: Do the people know? I mean average North Koreans. Do they understand how terrible things are for them?

A: The average North Korean knows that the situation in North Korea is not good. Compared to the time of Japanese colonialism and the Korean War, things are worse now. One example I can think of is that during the colonial period under the Japanese, the North Koreans ate the bark of pine trees, but now there isn’t even that to eat. During the Japanese colonial period, people were able to travel and trade freely. Now it is almost impossible. The method of torture has also become more severe since the Japanese colonial period, and people continue to compare the current situation to those times.
Recently, young people from the market generation have different views because they see China developing across the border. They know the world has developed and that they are stagnant. Not everyone in North Korea is aware of this situation, but many more people than before are becoming aware.

Q: Thank you for doing this AMA.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about North Korea? What do you think is the most important thing for Westerners to know?

A: One of the biggest misconceptions I think people have of North Korea is that they are simple and naive. But I feel that North Koreans as a group of people have gone through a lot of hardship, and their ability to survive in difficult situations are a lot higher that what people think. People think that unification will be a basketcase for North Koreans, but they will definitely be able to manage. People also think North Koreans will have a hard time adjusting to the market economy, but the black market is also growing under the regime’s nose, and people are used to working in this environment. North Koreans are not naive.

Q: What do you think how the next 10-20 years in North Korea will be like? What social changes would you expect? Thanks a lot for doing this, I’m looking forward to reading the answers!

A: I already feel that the North Korean system cannot sustain itself. To push for the breakdown of the regime, the roles of the Chinese and South Korean government are critical, but no action is taking place. Internal problems continue to take place. In my grandfather’s generation, the country was stable, but then there were economic problems. In this crisis, South Korea gave aid and support. However, because here is no more support from South Korea, North Korea has had no choice but to change. I envision a time when North Korea will go through change following the Chinese model. Within ten years, North Korea and South Korea will be able to have an open relationship between the two nations.

Q: How difficult was it to get your life back on track after everything that happened?

A: Adjusting to South Korean life was not difficult. While there were things I needed to learn again, a capitalist society works on the desires of a human being – being able to move freely, meeting whoever I wanted. I could live in this society following my desires. So I didn’t have that much stress adapting to South Korea. My family lived in Japan before North Korea, due to this influence of modern culture in Japan, I had the opportunity to listen to classical music often. But when I came to South Korea, a friend introduced me to the Beatles, and I bought their CD immediately. My friend then told me that thanks to me, the Beatles are still popular.
edit: changed “I” to “my family”

Q: What are your thoughts on organizations such as Liberty in North Korea?

A: When LiNK was first formed, I was very active with them. I used to go to the U.S. and participate in their activities. I think it is a good organization, and it is great that all the young people are working with LiNK to work on North Korea human rights. I’m actually very good friends with Hannah Song, the CEO of LiNK.

Q: Was it easy, possible even, for you and your fellow inmates to create relationships or some kind of communal feel. Or was it an experience you were oppressed to suffer alone?

A: I escaped North Korea with one other person who was in a political prison camp. There are other people such as Kim Young Soon and Jung Gwang Il who were not incarcerated during the same time as me but were in the same place. I am in good terms with all of them. While I lived in the political prison camp, there were moments of hostility towards each other in the beginning. But after a while, all prisoners came to realize that we all needed to cooperate and support each other, so we ended up having good relations.

Q: What were the worst things you saw?

A: My worst memory is when I was in the political prison camp. Normally, there are public executions which everybody watches. One time, there were two soldiers that tried to run away, and they were repatriated. This time, the authorities hung them and forced prisoners to throw rocks at the bodies, tearing away the flesh. Afterwards, the bodies were left there for 24 hours, and crows started eating away at them. I still remember that moment very vividly.

Q: Hi Mr. Kang, thanks for doing this. a few questions.
1. How realistic is unification?
2. How does the average N. Korean feel about China and Russia and their influence?
3. How interested in helping the North is the average South Korean?
4. How involved in the reunification process are the chaebol corporations (Samsung, LG, Hyundai, etc.)? I can’t help but feel they’re salivating at the land grab/cheap labor/emerging market the North may sometime provide.
When North Korea plays South Korea who do you root for?

A: Unification is possible and realistic. North Korea cannot be economically independent and they need the help of the South Korean government. The South Korean government has spent so much money in response to the threats of the North. Given China’s economic growth, South Korea should invest in unification with the North for economic benefits. The market will expand and benefit both sides. Both North and South Korea should not continue debating; they should start planning for unification. The Kim dynasty will not last forever.
An average North Korean is not interested in China or Russia, but is only worried about whether or not they have enough to eat. Perhaps the elite would have an opinion on China and Russia.
There is a sense of apathy in South Korea regarding North Korea.
Many South Koreans companies or “chaebol” see North Korea as a way of making money after the North Korean regime changes. Lately, companies are thinking of profit, yes, but they are also analyzing the environment in which they do their business, including the human rights conditions of that place. However, I think the South Korean companies now are thinking of returns and profit and not so much how they will actually help the North Korean people.
In the 1990s, Samsung used to give about $500 USD to defectors but this has stopped with the Sunshine policy. However, they should reestablish their support to the defector community. I wish the South Korean companies could think in terms of beneficial investments for North Korea.
My father-in-law used to be a football coach in North Korea, and my wife supports the North Korean team. So I have no choice but to support that team!

Q: What is your feeling about the tourists who go to North Korea? Are you upset that they might be giving money to the regime?

A: Tourism as a whole should continue in North Korea, but people should question the standards and restrictions given in the tourism programs. People like Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller did not do anything wrong. They were only punished for taking pictures in North Korea. Tourists can make a positive impact on North Korea, but they must not abide by the restricting regulations imposed by the government when they are there. The government should allow tourists to express themselves freely and say whatever they want. In that way, tourists could positively influence North Korea. But then there are tourists who come back and say they saw the power and greatness of the regime? Then I think something is wrong. Tourism should be an ongoing process for people to come back and talk about North Korea. But one thing I don’t like is when people go look at the Mass Games people and think that is is a great achievement of the government. They don’t take into consideration the human rights violations and the hardships people go through to produce this type of show.

Q: What are a few things you think the world needs to know about North Korea?

A: I think the North Korean government is a dishonest organization. People need to understand that any form of aid sent into North Korea will just benefit the regime and will never reach its people. For example, there is a church that gathered money to build a university and school, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. It is now being used for cyberterror in other countries. When you see the news, you see people cheering for the government, but that is all a lie. Former Russian prisoner Nathan Sharansky, author of the ‘The Case for Democracy’, writes that while he was in prison in Russia, he came to the conclusion that people in repressive regimes will play a double life. On the outside, they will support the government, but on the inside they are filled with doubt. This will lead to violence. I highly recommend you to read this book.
I like this book because it explains the power of democracy. This book was well received by the Bush administration, but I’m not sure if Bush understood the book fully. But I think Sharansky presents his ideas well.

Mr Kang AMA

Q: When you first arrived in China how did you learn the language? Were there people in China that helped you get on your feet? What kind of work did you do to support yourself? What do you think is the best way to help those who are defecting today?

A: After you cross the Yalu river, there are a lot of Korean ethnic Chinese, so language was not so much of a problem. I met an ethnic Korean Chinese who helped me in China. It is not that necessary to speak the language. When I crossed the river, I reached the house of a Korean ethnic Chinese who thought I was a tourist. When he found out I wasn’t, he wanted to report us. But then I met another person who spoke Korean and bought my ticket to go to Shenyang, where I met another friend who helped me go to Beijing, and then I went to Dalian. There I met a Chosun friend who helped me get a boat ticket to Seoul. So there were three people that helped me get to China.
When I was crossing over from North Korea, I went into China with a certain amount of money, so it kept me going. While I was in Dalian, the person looking after me was a person who smuggled snakes into South Korea because it is a delicacy there. There were so many snakes, and they needed to be looked after. I took care of the snakes in return for accommodation and food. It made me wonder why people thought snakes were a delicacy when in the political prison camps, we ate snakes because we didn’t have anything else to eat. It was a hard concept for me to understand.
The best way to help defectors is for governments to pressure China to let defectors enter South Korea. For example, Obama could raise the repatriation issue to China. In the case of the South Korean government, the defector and human rights issues always get sidelined and do not get the necessary spotlight. If this doesn’t happen, there isn’t much of a way in which the North Korean government .. If North Koreans are able to come to South Korea freely, they can pressure North Korea. Another way to help defectors is by providing funds to rescue defectors. There are certain costs for rescuing defectors through brokers. The security has gotten stricter in North Korea and China, making defection difficult. At a moment, funding has only come from civil groups. If financial support was given at a governmental level, it would make this a lot easier.
The best way is to work on a governmental level. However, it is becoming harder to rescue defectors. The next best thing is to send information into North Korea to make change from within. This is why the North Korea Strategy Center is carrying out the work we do because helping defectors is getting harder and harder.


Q: thanks for answering questions Im sure are in your book, Ill have to read it to get the full story (just learned of this AMA yesterday). Whats the best way for an average American to to push this agenda with our government? Do you think something like the Kony 2012 campaign (if you are familiar with that) would work in this situation?

A: Firstly, on a governmental level, there should be efforts to re-attempt financial sanctions, and pressure China to stop repatriating North Korean defectors. On a civil, individual level, average Americans can support the various activities that are being undertaken right now by organisation’s like mine, the North Korea Strategy Centre (NKSC), to send and disseminate outside information and media into North Korea. If we look at the wave of democratization in the Middle East, people being awakened to the circumstances in their own country in comparison with other foreign countries, brought about a true call for democratization. The work that we do at the NKSC, including media dissemination into North Korea is an in important part of achieving this.

Q: Sorry if my questions seem ignorant; I haven’t gotten the chance to read your book yet. It’s been on my ‘to read’ list for a long time now.
Do you have any concerns for your safety as a high-profile North Korean defector? Do you feel safe living where you are? If so, when did you start feeling truly safe/are there any concerns you still have about being targeted by the North Korean regime?
Thank you very much.

A: I feel I’m safe here. But the North Korean government keep making statements that they will kill me. I’m not threatened by it, but the lies they say about me do offend me. Fortunately, the South Korean police is keeping me protected.

Q: How long do you think North Korea will continue to exist as a totalitarian state?

A: If the Kim Dae Jung administration hadn’t instated the Sunshine policy, the regime could have changed, and North Korea could have taken a different path. There are a lot of people that think this way. North Korea would have had no choice but to go through economic reform like the Chinese model. But once again, North Korea is going through a political and economic crisis, and it will have no choice but to change. The authorities have started to release prisoners and made several high-level visits to South Korea. This shows that they are desperate for international attention in order to receive help to stabilize the regime. However, if the international community continues to support them, then the regime will be able to sustain itself. Let’s just wait a couple of years. If the international community and South Korea are patient and allow North Korea to continue its ways, it will have no choice but to change. It is also important now that the North Korean citizens change. We should make sure that any help given to North Korea reaches its people.

Q: Thank you very much for doing this AMA, If you could say one thing to the guards and the people who held you what would you say?

A: I don’t think the guards are there because of their own choice. It was because the government forced them to be there. I don’t think they are all bad. I think many of them have recognized the situation, and they are not to blame. When North Korea opens up, I think the guards that helped the prisoners could be forgiven. But of course, there are others that purposely violated others and were murderers. Those people should be punished, and I don’t think I could forgive them. They should have a sense of conscience and admit to their wrongdoings.

Q: What do you want the outside world to do to try to improve the situation?

A: While I was living in North Korea, I remember listening to the radio, which changed my life. I started seeing North Korea through a different lens. When I defected and came to South Korea, I was able to see so many things. It made me wonder, why are North Koreans not able to listen to such good music and watch these movies? I realized that the government was trying to stop information from reaching its people in order to sustain its regime through propaganda and the cult of adoration. I think that bringing this type of media into North Korea will empower a peaceful movement and silent change in North Korea.


Q: If a person in North Korea is caught with media from the outside can they be punished?

A: In my own experience, I listened to the radio for two years in North Korea with my friends. I knew that I could get punished or sent back to a political prison camp, but nonetheless, I had a thirst for freedom and interest in the South Korean youth. The yearn for freedom is increasing. So I think it would be the same for North Koreans, that they will be eager to learn about other things. Of course, there are people who are punished, but also many who bribe their way out. Also, the North Korean system is not functioning properly. Everybody is watching foreign media, and it is impossible to catch and punish everyone. It is inevitable, or else they would have to imprison everyone in the country! So it is so important to continue to send information on a larger scale.

Q: What are your some favorite activities to do in S.Korea? And we know the bad, is there much in terms of fun or good activities for the average North Korean?

A: My hobbies are reading and exercising. I do a lot of mountain climbing. In the past, I couldn’t really understand why people would just climb up mountains without any specific or special reason, but as I came to understand mountain climbing (as a hobby) I really came to love mountains and being up there.
Also, in the winter I love skiing. There’s one thing I really want to do: I hope to ski at least once in either the Alps, or at one of the famous ski resorts in America. In the winter, it’s easy for me to get in a slump or feel low, so I really enjoy skiing to ease my mind. Skiing is great for my mind, for my fitness, so I really am enjoying it these days.
In North Korea, to be honest it’s not really possible for (common) people to enjoy hobbies. Because people’s lives are governed within the authority’s rules and communal lifestyle, having personal hobbies or showing personal preference is a shortcut to the prison camp.

Q: Do you think the people in the outside world actually understand what is going on behind the borders? Everybody knows its terrible, but actually understand the true extent of what is going on? What do you think S. Korea and others could do better to improve things? Thanks!

A: Because just saying things has no visual effect or impact, those outside of North Korea can’t really get an understanding or know about what is going on inside North Korea. For example, if there is an earthquake or tsunami somewhere, there is a visual impact that we can see. We can understand and see how horrible it is. However if we think about Auschwitz, it wasn’t believed until it appeared before our eyes. In the same sense, there are so many aspects of North Korea that are very difficult for us to believe without seeing them ourselves. The Korean government and the international community have a lot of work to do with regards to North Korea, but in reality there isn’t enough being done right now. Supporting rescues of defectors, disseminating media into North Korea, applying pressure to China, these activities can be supported actively by the South Korea government or other governments, but it still looks like there is really not interest (from the governments).

Q: Food is notoriously scarce for many in North Korea, and I can’t even imagine the rations inside a prison camp. That being the case, what’s your favorite meal you’ve had since you’ve been outside NK?

A: In China, it’s Naengmyeon (cold ice noodles) and lamb skewers. In South Korea, steak and beef. The reason why I particularly like beef is because in North Korea, people are given beef from cows that were worked hard for 20 years, so they were as tough as tyres to eat. In North Korea only members of the very privileged tier of society are provided with beef, most ordinary citizens don’t even taste beef.

Q: Thank you for the AmA. How are prisoners treated inside the camps? Is there really a lot of murder and rape by the guards. Second, Is there any kind of underground movement in North Korea that would be willing to start a revolution and overthrow the regime? I feel if there was, they would receive a ton of support from other countries.

A: The authorities established political prison camps to segregate the people that they considered not able to live in North Korea. For example, those who helped the South Korean military, dissidents, and Christians. Now there are defectors. The process of interrogation is very tough. People are beaten and left to starve or die. Because of economic difficulties, they are using the prisoners for forced labor in mines or on the field. The reason these camps exist is to get rid of these people who are in opposition to the state. A lot of the things that people describe about these political prison camps are true. You cannot imagine all the atrocities that occur, such as rape and torture.

Q: After escaping what was the biggest change in life outside of North Korea? It seems like everything must seem so new and different after leaving a place like that.

A: Firstly, I gained weight. Being in the prison camp for so long, I couldn’t put on any weight and it really worried me. I put on enough fat to look healthy once I left North Korea. Secondly, since coming to South Korea, I have the freedom to do the things that I want to do. At the very least, to me it’s extremely important to do whatever I can for those who are suffering in North Korea.

Q: Could you describe your escape?

A: My route started from Pyongyang. I went from Pyongyang to Hyesan by train and then I crossed the Yalu River to Yanji, where I stayed for a month. Then I went to Shenyang for 3 months and then Dalian before I arrived at South Korea. The full details are in the book, including all of the people that I met.

Q: Thank you so much for doing this AMA. I just read The Aquariums of Pyongyang last week. Finding out that you were going to be answering questions was a pleasant surprise.
I have so many questions, and I know there’s not enough time for all of them.
What do you think about the reported closure of Yodok camp? What do you think motivates the closures, and if it is to host sham inspections, will it fool anyone? Excuse me and ignore if this one is too personal, but do you have any news about your sister?

A: Thank you for your questions! Since the international community has pressured North Korea to close their political prison camps after Kim Jong Un succeeded, Kim began trying to close political camps and change them into detention facilities. He tried to shut down the political prison camp in Hyeoryong at the same time as Yodok. After the purge of Jang Sung Taek, the people who were purged have risen, ending the plan to dismantle the camps. Over 10,000 were taken into political prison camps.
If it hosts a sham inspection, will it fool anyone? Even if they allow the international community in, they will not show the political prison camps. Recently, I saw a satellite picture of the location of the camp, and everything is still there. They will just show regular prisons, but only for show. If they do decide to show it, it would signify a huge change in North Korea’s attitude.
Until 2011, I was in contact with my sister, I used to send her money, who was in Hamgyung South Province. But then a State Security Agent framed his sister attempting to defect, and she disappeared from that point. In 2012, I filed a petition to the UN to find his sister, but I haven’t heard any news.

Q: If you could return to North Korea and do one thing, what would it be?
Have you read the book (or seen the films) ‘1984’ by George Orwell, What did you think of it?
If the two Koreas unify under a democratic government, would you return to the north?
How do you think North Korea would react if a defector became president of South Korea? Do you think it’s possible?
When you were a prisoner, what was it that motivated to find a way to get out?

A: One thing… hm.. When I go back, I want to visit the political prison camps and do an objective investigation of all the things that are going on there. I want to find out all the top secrets and look at the key perpetrators of all the human rights violations that have occurred in North Korea.
I haven’t finished the book, but from what I read, I saw what an authoritarian regime could be like.
In terms of unification, I think the German example is something Korea could follow. Some people feel that a federal system with North and South Korea is the way to go about it, but when I look at the elites in North Korea, they do not have the ethical basis to be able to rule a federal state. In the German unification, however, the West state “took in “ the East. South Korea then can go into North Korea and teach democratic values. Of course, if North Korea opens, I will go in and work for its democratization.
(Translator here, Mr. Kang chuckled at this next question)
If a defector was to become President, I feel that North Korea would fall apart very quickly. Currently, I don’t think this is possible, at least in the short-term, but under a unified Korean peninsula, I think this is possible. For example, German president Angela Merkel is originally from east Germany.
While I was in the political prison camp, I saw so many people die, but nobody in the world knew of this situation. Somewhere inside of me, I thought I needed to tell the people in the world. It wasn’t my main reason for defecting from North Korea, but I always had this on my mind.

Q: What’s your favourite Korean food?

A: Naengmyeong! It’s a Korea traditional ice noodle soup. Also, I do love baby back ribs with beer.

Q: What was your dream when you were in there? What did you want the most?

A: When I was young I wanted to be a pilot; then I wanted to become an astronomer.

Q: I couldn’t imagine what you had to go through.
What is your favorite flavor of Ice Cream?

A: When I went to San Francisco, I had Bi-Rite ice cream. It was amazing. There is also this Japanese ice cream in Pyongyang that NK elites used to eat that was also quite good. But nothing can beat the Bi-Rite ice cream.

Q: How do you feel about people visiting North Korea as a tourist? Do you think it’s good for the country or do you feel it it is damaging?

A: Hello! I answered this question below. I hope that answer will suffice!

Check out the AMA on Reddit here!