Jung Gwang Il, a North Korean defector whose organization No Chain smuggles news and information into the country, discussed his work last Wednesday at UAB.
After a panel discussion in the Alys Stephens Center, Jung sat down with Weld to talk about his work and the future of North Korea.
Jung was born in China to a family of ethnic North Koreans in 1963. His mother fled to North Korea in 1969 after his father was arrested on charges of being a North Korean spy, only for the family to face discrimination and suspicion in North Korea for having lived in China.
After completing his mandatory ten years of military service in 1989, Jung said he could only get manual labor jobs for many years due to discrimination. He eventually earned a position with a state-run trading company that required him to take trips back to China.
In 1999, a co-worker accused him of being a spy and he was arrested and subjected to nine months of torture. He was then sent to the Yodok prison camp, where he and thousands of other prisoners were forced to carry out work in conditions and where death from accidents or starvation was common. Jung was released in 2003, and when he asked why, he said he was told that the government had finally investigated the charges against him and determined they were false. Twelve days later, Jung escaped across the border into China.
After settling in South Korea, Jung started No Chain, which uses drones, human smugglers, and helium balloons to sneak glimpses of life outside North Korea past the regime.
The Alys Stephens panel, which was hosted by the Birmingham Committee on Foreign Relations, also featured discussions by Tufts University professor Sung-Yoon Lee, on the growing nuclear threat posed by North Korea, and human rights activist Henry Song, who helps North Korean defectors resettle in the United States. After the panel concluded, Jung and Song, who translated for him, talked to a Weld reporter about No Chain’s work, and their view of the challenges facing North Korea and those who escape from it. (This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.)
Weld: No Chain sends over a variety of materials into North Korea, from South Korean dramas to American actions movies to video testimony from other defectors. Of the different kinds of material you send, which do you feel is most effective for making people question the Kim regime?
Jung Gwang Il: Sending micro-SD cards and USB drives is the only thing that we can do because budget-wise, finance-wise, our ability is limited. I would say that the best way to get information into North Korea is for people to have the ability to access radio because listening to things in real time via radio, that’s the best way to get them news of the outside world the fastest way possible. USBs and micro-SD cards are great, but they’re not live news or live broadcasts, so radios would be the best way.
Obviously people in North Korea have access to radios, but the station is fixed to the state radio broadcast. We’ve had plans in the past to make or manufacture small short wave receiver radios, but due the astronomical budget that’s required to mass produce them and to send these units in, we’ve put that on hold for now.
The number two best way, obviously, is to allow the North Korean people to access the internet freely, because if they have internet access, the whole world is literally at their fingertips. Obviously, that is not feasible right now because the government is totally controlling the internet for the people.
Weld: Are there any hopeful signs that the North Korean people are starting to realize that their government is lying to them?
Jung: There’s a lot of recent examples of people criticizing the regime. There have been widely reported cases, for example, in the marketplace. The police are patrolling these markets, and if they act in a way that treats sellers or vendors unfairly, there have been reports and even video footage of North Koreans lashing out and fighting back to the North Korean agents, which is unheard of. You used to never hear reports like that. You have reports coming out [about] people, more so than in the past, actually speaking out and fighting back — in very small ways, obviously — but things that were unheard of until recently.
Weld: Do you think that there is any possibility of a peaceful transfer of power, or do you think that only an armed struggle could cause a regime change?
Jung: I believe it will be nearly impossible to have something done in a peaceful way. It will require substantive action. Obviously nobody wants war, and I don’t think war is going to happen any time soon. But what’s important to keep in mind is that people inside North Korea, it could be them who bring about change.
The South Korean government has no real power or desire to see war happen in the Korean peninsula, but in terms of a revolution or some sort of revolt happening, I believe it would be up the people themselves to come to that point. And I believe, going back to what we do as an organization, it’s important to get people to have that sort of mindset. That is what we’re doing by sending information over.
Weld: If the North Korean people were to revolt and depose the Kim regime, do you think they would then attempt to reunify or would they set up a new but still independent state?
Jung: Since North Korea is so economically backwards compared to South Korea, my guess is that the North Korean people would not want to replace the Kim dictatorship with another system regardless of whether it’s less of a dictatorship than Kim Jong-Un’s was. So I would assume that North Koreans would want assimilation into South Korea to be part of the capitalistic, free-market democratic society, rather than staying in the same North Korean system.
Weld: There have been widespread reports of the Chinese government returning North Korean defectors to the Kim regime if they are caught in China. Can China be pressured or persuaded to not return North Korean expatriates?
Jung: I would answer that by saying not to pressure China but to go to the source of the misery, of why people want to leave in the first place. Most of the repatriated North Koreans are not alive anymore, because they’ve been killed or starved to death. The best way to have this situation stopped is to have Kim Jong-Un referred to the International Criminal Court, which is what many international organizations and activists have been recommending.
Henry Song: I would add that in terms of China, this is a very serious situation because China has the ability to stop the misery of the people. They don’t have to repatriate these defectors, because they are party to the 1951 UN convention on the status of refugees. They have no reason, legally speaking, to return these defectors to North Korea. They could always send them to South Korea, which is what these defectors want. They could send them elsewhere. The fact that they’re sending them back to North Korea is a violation of human rights and a cruel and inhuman choice.
We’ve had protests in front of the Chinese embassy in D.C., and in front of Chinese consulates throughout America. We are constantly putting pressure on the Chinese government. What’s interesting is that the Chinese people don’t know about this situation. They find out about it when they come to the U.S. as tourists or students, and I’ve had many Chinese students with families in the U.S., and they come up, especially girls, sobbing, going, “I didn’t know my government did this to North Koreans.” Some were sobbing and apologizing because they’re in China and the Chinese government is obviously not going to expose this situation. You have a situation where if you could turn the hearts and minds of the Chinese people, we could use them as a way to pressure the Chinese government to stop this from happening.
Weld: You mentioned in your speech at the Alys Stephens Center that many of your fellow prisoners in Yodok were Christians, or even just those who were accused of being exposed to Christianity. Why does North Korea persecute Christians or those who just have come into contact with the religion?
Jung: So it’s just like ISIS and their fundamentalist, terroristic stance when it comes to Islam. If you don’t believe in Allah and Islam, they will commit murder for that. So in the same sense in North Korea, you can’t have any other religion besides believing in Kim Il-Sung. You can’t have any gods besides Kim Il-Sung because believing in somebody else other than Kim Il-Sung means your heart and mind is dedicated toward someone else and that’s unacceptable in the eyes of the regime. And that’s why the regime is so hard not only on Christians, not only on Christianity.
When Kim Il-Sung first became leader of North Korea, he kicked out religion, but he probably focused on Christianity. He saw religion as the opiate of the masses and said that it’s a dangerous thing. So you have a situation where in North Korea, historically speaking, Christianity, especially American missionaries, were painted as evil characters intent on really destroying the North Korean people. So, basically, you can’t have any other god but Kim Il-Sung, and Christianity believes in a god that’s not Kim Il-Sung. So that’s why they are so beleaguered.