Truth Shock Awaits North Korean Defectors
Even ex-ideologue Hwang may find South a difficult eye-opener
SEOUL — South Korea will soon welcome the highest-ranking official to defect from North Korea. Hwang Jang-yop, chief ideologue of the North's communist system, is expected to reveal the inside scoop on one of the world's most closed societies.
After that, he will join dozens of lesser defectors who have tried to live a comfortable, though secretive, life in South Korea. Mr. Hwang, especially, will need to elude assassins who may be sent to punish a traitor to the North.
His dramatic defection through Beijing, and then in the dark of night to the Philippines, may pale in comparison to the adjustment he will need to make to a society much different than has been portrayed by North Korean officials - such as Hwang himself - to their isolated people.
He may first want to seek advice from defectors like Hwang Kwang-chul and his brother. This pair of North Koreans floated across the Tumen River in 1994 to reach their agreed goal: China.
It was only after the dangerous crossing that Kwang-chul confessed his real intention - to live in South Korea. His brother thought he was crazy. "We escaped because we were hungry. Why would we want to go to someplace even poorer?" he recalls his brother asking. With Kwang-chul's explanations, and corroboration from Korean-Chinese who live along the China-North Korea border, his younger brother slowly learned what 22 million North Koreans eventually will discover: South Korea is not an impoverished American colony preparing to attack their "worker's paradise."
With living conditions in North Korea getting progressively worse, the number of defectors to the South has soared in recent years. But like these brothers, defectors who reach Seoul find that the cultural differences between the North and South are vast and not always easy to surmount.
Kwang-chul says he believed North Korean propaganda until he turned 17. Then he got a Chinese-made radio whose dial wasn't factory-welded to North Korean stations. In the South Korean broadcasts "the voices were softer somehow," he says. He didn't hear any admonitions to "mutilate the enemy" or "prepare for all-out war" - common slogans in the North.
Kwang-chul wasn't sure about exactly what South Korea would be like, but he began to suspect his own government of lying to him.
For Kwang-chul, like a growing number of defectors, life was unbearable. "I was hungry and didn't want to work in the mines until my death," he says.
He and his younger brother left behind a mother who had been jailed for stealing bread. They tied plastic-bag bracelets filled with rat poison and pesticide to their wrists in case North Korean agents discovered them. For the year they wandered in China, they never took them off.
Like hundreds of other North Koreans hiding out in China, they didn't know whom to trust and learned that passage to South Korea was much easier for defectors with valuable intelligence information.
North Koreans have found South Korean officials in China and begged and pleaded for help, only to be ignored. In one case, a South Korean glibly handed a would-be defector $13 and walked off.
Meanwhile, Lee Chul-soo, a North Korean Air Force pilot with intelligence information, received $500,000 for a daring escape last May when he flew his MiG-19 over the border.
To defect, says Baek Ho-chul, another recent defector, "you must convince [South Korean intelligence agents] that it's your [true] desire. They watch you for several months to make sure you want to go." Mr. Baek, who had been working in Russia, had to hide out in Kazakstan for eight months while being investigated by South Korean agents.
Eventually, Kwang-chul and his brother stowed away on a ship sailing from Shanghai. They were given about $20,000 to get settled in South Korea and start a new life.
Like many defectors, Kwang-chul feels guilty for those he left behind. He learned that his entire family is now in prison.
Choi Ju-hwal, a defector who now works as a researcher in a South Korean think tank, says, "Although nobody says this to me directly, I can feel other people seeing me as a traitor to my family."
An eager young man, Kwang-chul found a job where he now learns accounting. He attends night school to learn mechanical engineering, studies Japanese at an institute, and learns English from a Korean-American lawyer.
But many defectors find it difficult to adapt to South Korea's frenetic capitalism. His brother, Kwang-chul says, is "fatalistic." Kwang-chul prefers not to associate with other defectors because it depresses him.
He says that although South Koreans are rich, they work hard for their money and are always busy.
South Korea is the 11th-largest economy in the world, while North Korea's entire economy has shrunk to about one-third the size of the international sales of just one of South Korea's corporations, electronics giant Samsung.
"The reality is that however much we plan and think about [reunification], it's beyond this government's capability. We'll never be ready," says Lho Kyung-soo, a professor at Seoul National University. "Once the dam starts breaking, we'll have a flood" of North Koreans.
Early this year, the government announced new plans for managing defectors. A camp will house 500 North Koreans for a year before they are released into South Korean society. They will receive job training and learn basic survival skills for a capitalist society, officials say.
These days, North Koreans in cities and in areas bordering Russia and China, hear outside news and know that South Koreans live better. Although people in the North were told Hwang was kidnapped, defector Baek says, "in a year, everyone will know that he defected by choice." And "people will begin to think about the South, and freedom."