Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Q&A: So, North Korean defector Joo-il Kim, what was life like for you at home?


Rob Hastings
Monday 15 April 2013 13:48 BST

The Independent spoke to Joo-il Kim, a North Korean defector who now lives in New Malden, Surrey, about his life and the current political stand-off in Korea. His story of what led to him escaping is one of shocking sadness, but since coming to the UK - where he is working on a newspaper to smuggle into the country - he has been able to lead a much happier life.

Q: What made you decide to leave your family and risk your life by defecting in 2005?

A: "Due to economic hardships in the late 1990s and early 2000s, people were dying of starvation - not only civilians but army soldiers. Those who didn't want to die of hunger would try to escape from the army. Ordinary people in North Korea are not allowed to travel around the country. But as a captain in the military, I had the privilege to travel around - to try and find the people who had escaped.

"One time I had a chance to go to my home town, which is north Hamgyong province. My older sister was married and had a daughter who was three years old. My niece was suffering from malnutrition and was barely alive. But since it was the first time I had been back home since my military school graduation, my sister wanted to give me something special, or at least something to eat. So she brought the rice from her house that was supposed to be for porridge for her daughter. That meant she had to go and beg for other food for her daughter, who was almost dying.

"After three or four days she managed to get some raw corn. She was out looking for more corn bars when her daughter started looking for her. She came out of her room and tripped over a packet of corns, and because she was so hungry she ate them all. But if you eat these you get thirsty easily, so she went to get some water - and because she had consumed so much corns and water at once after being so malnourished for so long, it combined in the stomach and made it explode, and she died.

"I had always known there was something wrong in society, but this was the incident that triggered my decision.

"It was about a year before I finally escaped. I went to Hamgyong province and finally decided to use this opportunity to go to the border to get to China. I felt a lot of pressure, during that year I thought so much about what I could do, the pros and cons of my escape, and I didn't know what to do. "Finally I realised this was the only chance I had. If I didn't do it then, I'd never escape. I went near to the river on the border on 26 August 2005. I arrived on 23 August but it was almost a full moon and every night was too bright, so I stayed there and waited until there were some clouds in the sky. Using the darkness, I swam for four hours.

"I went to China, then Vietnam, then Cambodia, but they don't accept North Korean refugees and I could not claim asylum so I could not settle there. I eventually went to Thailand, but even there they issue a UN document allowing people to stay but not as permanent residents."

Q: What is life like for you in the UK?

A: "Normally North Korean refugees who live in the UK have a proper job and make money and have a stable job, but my life is a bit different. I still have a language barrier, so I work on advocating human rights and bringing changes to North Korean society, this is my ultimate goal.

"I've learned a lot since I came to the UK, especially the value of democracy. The best treatment I have received in Britain is the fact there is no discrimination against me or other immigrants I know in this society. There is no limitation to having a free life. I receive benefits from the government, but material support is not as important.

"When I was in North Korea I always thought of London as a foggy city, but we never see fog. Climate change is making a lot of changes in the world - Korea is becoming more tropical, but Britain is a country that could have advantages from climate change!

"My new hobbies here are playing football every weekend, and table tennis."

Q: What surprised you about life outside North Korea?

A: "In North Korea they have electricity shortages so it's really dark and you cannot walk around at night, but in China it was like a whole new world with all the lights twinkling.

"In North Korea, the mountains are bare - they don't have much greenery because people cut down the trees to make fires at home. But here the fact England is green all over the place is very surprising."

Q: What was life like for you at home?

"In North Korea there is no such as thing as personal belongings, so everybody lives in a house provided by the Government. In my case, I lived in a building with two flats. My mother was a teacher at a day-care centre. My father was a civilian driver in the army. My older brother was a military captain, and my sister was in the military working in a missile facility.

"I'm from Kilju. This is in the area where North Korea conducted its first, second and third nuclear bomb tests. Everybody in this area drinks water that comes out of the mountain in the streams. Every house has a pump that takes the water from underground. These nuclear tests could affect these people because nobody knows if they are exposed to radiation by drinking the water."

Q: Do you know what has happened to your parents?

A: "I know they are under the surveillance and supervision of the regime and they are not allowed to go around the neighbourhood - people inside the country have told me.

"Normally once North Korean refugees escape and their information is made available to the government, it tries to capture the family and relatives of these people and send them to a political prison camp. But my case is a bit different because I'm pretty well known in the international community through activities with the UN. The Government claims there are no such thing as human rights violations in North Korea, so they cannot harm the family of someone as exposed as I am. They want to punish my family but they cannot do anything to them."

Q: What do you hope to achieve with your newspaper?

A: "The purpose of opening my newspaper agency is to target people inside North Korea, as they don't have information. I want to make changes in the way people think by delivering news from outside. But also the international community doesn't have much knowledge of North Korea.

"The internet newspaper is aimed at people outside North Korea, but I want to deliver hard copies to the people inside. In North Korea there is not even minimal information network, normal houses don't even have a regular telephone apart from in Pyongyang, and due to economic hardships there are electricity blackouts, so old fashioned print media is better than USB sticks or DVDs.

"There are three ways to deliver the newspapers. One, I have people who live in North Korea - let's call them correspondents - who can be given the newspapers, or we can use balloons over the mountains, and there are at least 20,000 people who smuggle items into North Korea every day from the riverside."

Q: What do you think of the current situation? How will it end?

A: "There were some previous provocations to increase tensions, but this time they are using the nuclear weapons as a threat. I believe this is the highest level of provocation so far. The whole international community is interested if there is going to be a war.

"The sole purpose of the North Korean regime is to maintain the regime - they are worried that the regime could be collapsed by an outside force or an uprising inside the country. Because of those two factors, they believe the nuclear weapons are necessary.

"What is different from what happened in the Middle East is people in North Korea do not believe they are economically challenged and poor because of the failure of the regime, but because of the US, South Korea and the international community isolating North Korea. They think it's their fault. In order to fight against these enemy countries, they believe nuclear weapons are necessary. The regime is making the people believe the link between economic hardship and the need for nuclear weapons. Plus they need a good leverage in having dialogues with the international community, and in order to receive more aid they're using this nuclear factor to have more concessions from the international community.

"This is a noise effect, they are afraid of their human rights problems being revealed and are using the nuclear threat to stop this. Everybody is so focused on the war issues and the nuclear issue to distract people. At this time it's more important to bring attention to the human rights issues."

Q: What did you think of George Galloway's comments last week? The MP said that North Korea has "an extraordinarily cohesive political entity and society," adding: "North Korea has no intention to harm any of us. North Korea's problem is with South Korea. South Korea exists because America invaded Korea, killed millions of people, divided the country and continues to garrison South Korea with military bases, nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapon."

A: "I've never seen or heard of him. But I believe he has no basic knowledge of North Korea or Korea's history. When someone supports something they need to have sufficient background information. He says the US invaded Korea, but that's not true at all. North Korea invaded South Korea, and at the beginning the US wasn't involved, but when the North attacked that was when the US on behalf of the UN invaded. I don't want to call him and idiot, but there are a lot people who don't know about North Korea's history.

"When I first came to the UK I met a Korean War veteran who held my hand and cried and said there is suffering because the UK was one the countries involved in the Korean War, and if they had demolished the regime back then, then North Korea would be free. But this has nothing to do with the British, it's not their fault."

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in