SEOUL – Han Song Mi had the opportunity to escape from North Korea three times. Twice, she turned away the “brokers” – people smugglers – who arrived at her door to get her out. Only on their third visit did she assent, making a perilous journey over the frontier into China and thence to South Korea.
It is a telling comment on the power of the state over its citizens’ minds and bodies that the then-17-year-old – living a neo-Dickensian existence with zero prospect of improvement – took so long before deciding to make the break.
Han’s experiences growing up in crushing poverty in the foresaken backwaters of rural North Korea are light years away from the missile launches, military parades and Kim Jong Un appearances that dominate TV news coverage.
Her tale comes from a walled-off, unknown place – a place closer in its lifestyle to medieval peasant communities than to densely inter-connected, economically expanding and high-tech Northeast Asia.
But it’s relevant. Han’s micro story from ground-zero North Korea casts light on a macro issue that confounds 21st-century statesmen and geopoliticians: The continued, odds-against existence of arguably the world’s most successful (or most bulletproof) dictatorship.
Despite appalling hardships, global isolation and US hostility, North Korea has defied all predictions of collapse. It is a one-of-a-kind nation: A post-communist neo-monarchy that unites its people via the legends of its ruling Kim clan in an ambiance of paranoid militarism and ultra-nationalism.
The populace, despite their lack of rights, freedoms and prosperity, has neither risen nor escaped. The country currently has a population of almost 26 million, but since the Korean War ended 1953, just 33,856 persons have defected to South Korea, according to Seoul’s Ministry of Unification.
How have the Kims managed to control their citizenry so completely, so successfully and for so long?
Story of a young girl
Han, now 29, grew up in the ragged center of North Korea, far distant from the high rises and broad plazas of the showpiece capital. “If someone had been to Pyongyang, you were like, ‘wow!’” Han said.
It was a life of relentless poverty. Her baby sister died at age two from unknown causes; an uncle and a grandfather died of malnutrition.
In the winter, dead bodies were common sights, even in town centers. “People were not surprised, they’d say, ‘Oh, another one,’” she said. One day, Han discovered an abandoned baby under a bridge.
Following the collapse of Soviet communism, North Korea’s socialist state distribution mechanism imploded, leading to hideous famines in the 1990s. Since then, non-elite North Koreans have been forced to engage in survival entrepreneurialism – including many children.
Han had just a one-year elementary school education, then she, too had to work. She helped her aunt, a food peddler, as an unpaid laborer in return for room and board – even sleeping with the family’s only asset, a pig, to prevent anyone from stealing it.
One day in September 2005, when Han was 12, her mother gave her some cash and a knife for her cooking duties. She told her daughter she was going away, “to make money” – but did not say where.
This was not unusual. Han’s mother – divorced from a violent husband – was an itinerant trader/seller, using the rail network to trade and barter commodities such as grains and fish.
Her mother said she would return in October – but did not. That, too, was not unusual: Due to power outages, trains were often late or canceled. Days passed. Then weeks, then months. Han realized something was wrong.
“I was waiting, waiting,” Han recalled. “When I heard whistles from the train station, it was like she was calling me and I’d run to the station, crying and asking people if they had seen a woman like my mother.”
Living with her aunt was tough. To prove her worth, Han climbed nearby mountainsides to gather kindling, helped in the kitchen, did the housework, and babysat her aunt’s two children.
“I had to do these things for my auntie, or she would hate me,” Han said. “My mum had been my universe…I could not see a future.”
One day a letter arrived from China – a postmark that impressed the mailman who delivered it. It was from Han’s mother. She wrote that she was making money, and would return.
But from the day the letter arrived, Han realized she was being surveilled. North Korea’s state security maintains a vast web of informants within communities – even within families.
“After Mum left, I was monitored all the time,” she said. “One day, two policemen on bikes came looking for me while I was outside farming.”
Then in 2007, a stranger knocked at the door, urging Han to come with her to China, where her mother, who had paid the broker, awaited. But Han’s aunt and uncle, fearing that she would be trafficked – the fate of unknown numbers of desperate North Korean female refugees – forbade her.
Han, too, was against. “I was scared, China was another country,” she recalled thinking. “What if someone sold me?”
Months later, another, different broker arrived at the house. By then, Han’s “awakening” had begun.
A neighbor who had been to China secretly told her life was better there – even if she was sold. And indeed, defectors find life even in China’s rural, backwaters preferable to North Korea.
But again, fear prevented Han from acting.
Only the third time, did she decide to go. The motivation was a conversation she secretly overheard between her aunt and uncle. It was clear that her safety was not their priority; instead, the couple wanted to keep Han indefinitely as their home slave, without education, pay or prospects.
“I realized that they were not thinking of me as family,” she said. “I thought then that I had no future in North Korea.”
She went to the post office and called the broker. She told him, “Come now. I am ready.”
The man arrived within hours. Her uncle and aunt were sleeping: Han slipped out, locking the door behind herself.
They went to the rail station, where Han registered for a trip to the border town of Hyesan with an ID card she had purloined. But in North Korea, even internal travel is controlled – especially in border areas. Guards on the train were suspicious. The broker, sitting seats away, could not help.
Disbelieving Han’s story – that she was visiting her grandmother – the guards took her to their office on the train. They began beating the teenager, slapping her and kicking her in the stomach. When she did not change her story, they shoved her off the train into the care of station guards.
At the station, under questioning, she refused to reveal her aunt’s name or address, fearing that she, too, would be arrested and tortured. During a break in her interrogation, one guard sought to fondle her. Han shoved him aside and bolted.
In front of the station, was a group of around 20 soldiers. Han grabbed one man’s hand and begged him to save her. The soldiers lambasted the guard, and gave her a coin to call her parents. She ran and called the broker.
She slept rough, despite the cold. The next morning, the broker arrived and conveyed her to a safe house close to the China border on the Tumen River. She cut her hair to change her appearance.
She learned that her mother had arranged to bribe border guards to turn a blind eye to those crossing the frozen Tumen River. The broker handed her over to two smugglers – who smuggled drugs as well as people – one male, one female, for the crossing.
It was March 19, 2011: A cold, dark night. As they stepped onto the frozen Tumen, the three were lit up by a searchlight. Then they heard the bark of a pursuit dog. They started running.
Han was aware of the risks: She had her knife with her and planned to cut her wrists if captured. But, unaware of what the crossing entailed, she had worn elevator shoes: “I was going to see my Mum!” she said.
It was a poor choice of footwear. She plunged through the ice into freezing water. “I felt like 1000 knives were cutting my body,” she said. The female smuggler dragged her out and across to the river bank.
Somehow, Han cut herself on a nail set into a studded plank – but they had made it onto Chinese soil. Behind them, they heard barking, gunshots and curses from the border guards echo off the frozen hillsides.
A Korean-Chinese broker awaited. Han was handed into his custody.
Countless North Korean refugees stay in China, living shadow lives amid the ethnic Korean minority in Manchuria. Others are trafficked into slavery, sex slavery or marriage.
Han was lucky: She was swiftly conveyed through China and into Southeast Asia. From there, she arrived in South Korea, where her mother had already arrived. It was May 20, 2011: Her mother’s birthday.
The two reunited in Hanawon, Seoul’s deprogramming/re-education facility for North Korean defectors. “I just cried and cried,” Han recalled. “It had been six years…it felt like 10 years.”
Han today is a university student in Seoul. Even in a metropolis noted for its attractive and stylish women, she stands out for her looks – though she has the stature of a child.
Soft-spoken with a shy manner, she waited for a decade to record her experiences in her autobiography, “Greenlight to Freedom,” which was published this year.
Mind control, body control
Though global news viewers will automatically connect North Korea to the Kims, the family that runs the country do not get a single mention in Han’s book. Her only view of the distant ruler of the country – Kim Jong Il at the time – was on TV, she told Asia Times.
“TV news shows showed him visiting somewhere and they would say, ‘Even though his health is not good, he is working for the people,’” she said. “He was like our father – like our god.”
Han’s education stopped at elementary school, but she remembers what her aunt’s children’s textbooks said: “North Korea was the best country ever; South Korea was so poor, we had to help them.”
But North Korea’s information dike has been holed, largely as a result of cross-border trade with China. The semi-official markets that have sprung up since the mid-1990s serve as distribution channels for outside media that is smuggled in.
Under Kim Jong Un, who took power in 2011, frontier control has tightened. That year, according to the Ministry of Unification data, 2,706 defectors arrived in the South. Their numbers have dwindled since, never rising above 1,514.
A Covid-19 border lockdown has been harshly enforced with troops given shoot-to-kill orders. In 2020, 229 defectors arrived in the South; in 2021 it was 63; thus far in 2022, the figure is just 42.
Yet such is the demand, outside media continues to be smuggled in and widely traded and disseminated despite the closed border.
“So many people watch Chinese and South Korean films and dramas, but people can’t speak out, even families can’t talk about it,” Han said.
She once heard an old man snarl, “This terrible country! Maybe South Korea can invade and finish it,” but such talk is rare, for it is hugely risky.
Various elements contribute to this risk, not least a vast network of informants overseen by the state security services: Every citizen is a potential snoop.
Overhearing conversations is easy, given the cramped, low-grade construction of the housing in Han’s village. “Houses are so close that you can hear the neighbor fart,” she said. “If your neighbor is being noisy, you knock on the wall.”
This enables monitoring, which can be used to contradict statements made in self-criticism sessions – which Han recalls taking place once a week.
The climate of fear is well merited. Twice, Han was taken to watch public executions. One was of a woman who had committed murder; one was of a man who had distributed South Korean media.
“We were told, ‘If you do illegal things, you will be here!” she recalled.
Execution by firing squad is just the tip of the punishment iceberg in a state that operates a secretive gulag of labor camps, re-education camps and the especially feared “total control” camps.
And personal responsibility does not stop in a system where collective guilt is applied. “It would not only be me who would be punished,” Han said. “But also my family.”
All the names in her book, such as that of her aunt, have been changed to protect those still in the North.
It is a system of “immobility, ignorance and fear,” said Casey Lartigue, Han’s American co-author. And it is insidious. One refugee, citing a period of national mourning, told him, ‘They even count your tears!”
Peasants and aristocrats
But the Kims are also irrelevant to the lives of ordinary North Koreans – an irrelevance that one expert compares to the Christian God and the lives of peasants in Medieval Europe.
“If you were a French villager in the 14th century, you knew there was a God and you learned some stories and believed that God was kind, but God was not something relevant to your daily life,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University, told Asia Times.
Though defectors may not want to talk about the Kims, few hold them in high regard.
Lartigue surveyed 150 defectors with the question “Who is your hero?” Only one defector mentioned a Kim – Kim Il Sung, the regime’s first head, who died in 1992 – and only because “she had grown up during that period.”
However, Lankov says the reason North Korea remains intact is not simply fear – which he calls “a great simplification” – but the unity of an elite co-opted by the Kims. It is loyal to them for it has no other choice.
“Dictatorships crumble when some people at the top come to the conclusion that they should have a different system,” said Lankov. “The elite are united to a very large extent as they have no exit option: If they fall, they will lose everything.”
Under this analysis, disempowered members of the masses like Han have little bearing on regime stability.
And it is not just push factors that keep the populace under control; there are pull factors, too. One is regime propaganda – which many persons unfamiliar with North Korea chuckle at.
They should not. A state which controls of all legal media channels wields a powerful tool of mind control.
Moreover, content is not all counterfactual. US-led international sanctions impact not just regime activities, but also legitimate commerce – priming the audience for anti-US content.
While much state media is dreary and turgid, production values are improving. Indeed, Pyongyang appears to have borrowed some techniques from foreign cinematography.
“Propaganda has got more sophisticated,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea watcher at Seoul’s Asan Institute, a think tank. “Things have changed through exposure to South Korean and also Chinese shows and the regime has adapted as they know the classic agitation does not work, so they borrowed elements of contemporary media.”
An example Go cites is the widely distributed video of a Hwasong-17 ICBM launch early this year. Borrowing Hollywood-style tropes, it depicts a leather-jacketed Kim, in shades; camouflaged soldiers and uniformed generals; slow-motion walks; and hanger doors opening to reveal the huge weapon, on its impressive transporter-erector launcher vehicle.
The power of a long diet of state media is considerable. Returning to his Medieval analogy, Lankov says, “This kind of messaging remains hidden in your brain – like a background religion.”
North Korean headscape
It, and shared experience, create an identity that has surprising strength – even among defectors.
Many find it hard to fit into South Korea’s highly competitive society. Some long for the simpler, more communal, lives they lived in the North. A handful has even re-defected.
A related issue – and a reason why so few defectors speak out – is immigrant identity.
“Some defectors still identify as North Koreans first and South Koreans second – they don’t feel at home,” Go said. “They are probably reluctant to undermine their own identity, so it is less about brainwashing, more about identity.”
What, then of the self-identity of North Koreans inside the Kimdom? No polling data exists regarding what citizens really think, making the headspace of the average North Korean a mystery even to elite Pyongyangologists.
“I don’t know, and I am afraid nobody knows,” said Lankov, who, during the Soviet era, studied at the elite Kim Il Sung University. “Nobody has done a serious study of this issue – which would be completely impossible.”
Still, one aspect of the mindset is not to be dismissed, even among North Koreans in the South: A reluctance to critique the heads of the regime.
“Few want to talk about the Kims,” said Lartigue, who arranges public speaking opportunities for North Korean refugees under his NGO, Freedom Speakers International. “Usually, they only mention them if someone asks.”
Given the reality of collective guilt, encouraging communication is no easy task.
“North Koreans have to think, ‘When I leave, when I speak out, it is not just about me,’” Lartigue said. “We had one refugee who was going to speak at a conference in Hawaii, and her family contacted her from North Korea and said, ‘Don’t speak.’ She dropped out.”
Han knows that fear well.
“I am still afraid,” she said. “Wherever I go, I ask people, ‘Don’t ask me about the Kims.”
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