North Korean defectors watch Kim Jong-un’s South Korea visit with dread
SEOUL On the eve of a historic summit of the leaders of North and South Korea, the prospect of a diplomatic thaw and improved relations vexes many of North Korean defectors who have made new lives here, who vow they will never stop fighting for the removal of the government in Pyongyang even if Mr. Kim agrees to give up his nuclear weapons.
The skepticism comes amid a wave of optimism that has pulsed through South Korea as President Moon Jae-in prepared to welcome North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for direct talks Friday between two states that are still technically at war. The meeting is a prelude to a proposed face-to-face meeting between the reclusive North Korean dictator and President Trump in the coming weeks at a place and time still to be determined.
But Choi Jung-hoon, a former North Korean army officer, who defected to the South in 2006 and who survived a North-driven assassination attempt in 2013, insists the Moon-Kim meeting will to do little to change his mind about the country he fled.
“No matter the outcome of these summits, our goal will still ultimately be regime change,” Mr. Choi said in an interview recently.
He spoke inside a discreet office in the South Korean capital, where he and handful of other defectors run Free North Korea Radio, a nonprofit that has piped subversive shortwave news broadcasts into the North since 2006.
Mr. Choi told The Washington Times the harrowing story of his own escape from North Korea, where he grew up never thinking of himself as an opponent of the regime. His views changed in 2006 after unintentionally running afoul of the government when he sought money in exchange for helping a South Korean family locate a kidnapped relative in the North.
“I was ordered by Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, to be killed, but they couldn’t catch me and I got out,” said Mr. Choi, adding that his situation turned more harrowing once he arrived in the South, where he learned the regime had turned its sights on members of his immediate family still living in the North.
“First, the regime tried to use extortion and get money from them, but then it forced them to live in a very harsh area, and they shot my youngest brother in 2012,” said Mr. Choi. He outlined the pains he has gone through over the past decade to smuggle his mother, father and three brothers out of North Korea through a circuitous route that risked discovery at every turn by North Korean spies.
“It was scary,” he said, taking a drag on a cigarette and gazing out the station’s window.
One by one, over the course of several years, his relatives used secretive middlemen to cross the North Korean border with China, where they boarded trains for Myanmar. Once there, more fixers were hired to ferry them farther south into Thailand, where authorities have set up refugee centers to house fleeing North Koreans.
After a few months in the Thai center, Mr. Choi said, he was able to win transfers for each family member to South Korea, where his siblings are now part of a community of defectors from the North.
‘They have tried to kill us’
Mr. Choi acknowledged that he may be one of the more politically active among the some 30,000 North Korean defectors in the South, many of whom choose to live quiet lives.
“I love it here in the South because we have freedom and human rights,” he said. “But living here as a North Korean defector is very challenging because a lot of people still think we’re different and not part of the system. We tend to be marginalized in the society.”
There is the threat of being targeted by the wide-reaching spy network that South Korean officials say Pyongyang operates inside the South.
South Korean counterintelligence operations have prevented North Korean spies from infiltrating the South’s military, including cases in which young female agents of the North tried to “cozy up” to South Korean officers to gain information.
But the Kim regime is also accused of targeting defectors, especially those deemed to have potential ties to and influence with old friends still living in the North.
Mr. Choi said his activities made him a target. In addition to his radio work, he is an outspoken member of the North Korean People’s Liberation Front, which consists of defectors who once served in the North Korean military.
Asked whether he fears the organization may be infiltrated by Pyongyang, Mr. Choi paused for a long moment.
“They cannot penetrate our organization, but they have tried to kill us,” he said. “A North Korean female spy was ordered by the regime in Pyongyang to kill me a few years ago. She was caught by the authorities in the South and was sent to jail in 2013.”
The Times could not immediately verify the claim.
Free North Korea Radio
Free North Korea Radio employees say they have been the targets of death threats via email and fax. Pyongyang’s state-controlled newspapers have published the names of defectors working at the Seoul-based operation, with warnings that they and their families will be hunted down and killed whether they are living in the North or the South.
Free North Korea Radio, which broadcasts an hour a day, features North Korean defectors talking about life in the South compared with the North’s authoritarian rule. “What we’re really focused on is changing the thoughts of the common people in the North to try and educate them,” said Mr. Choi.
A key portion the broadcasts offers news on North Korea that Pyongyang’s state media won’t allow. In addition to smuggling tiny USB port data drives into the country, the station’s producers are able to talk with people across the border on Chinese cellphones. If they are close enough to the border with China, they can pick up a signal from towers on the Chinese side.
Funded in part by donations from Christian churches in South Korea, the organization also features Bible readings and a radio drama about the life of Jesus Christ. It is also backed by the U.S.-based Defense Forum Foundation, a nonprofit that describes itself as “dedicated to promoting a strong national defense and promoting freedom, democracy and human rights abroad.”
Suzanne Scholte, who heads the foundation, said in an email that “we fervently believe that information is the key to ending the Kim regime.”
But Mr. Choi expressed concern about the radio station’s future.
“If these summits turn out to be successful, our work will become like a burden for the government in the South,” he said. “The [Moon] administration, indirectly or directly, will pressure us. I’m sure that since South Korea is a democratic society, they won’t pressure us officially. But I’m worried about this.”
He said he is frustrated that the diplomatic push is “extending the Kim regime’s lifeline.” But at the same time, Mr. Choi said, diplomacy is better than war, and he praised Mr. Trump’s hard-line posture toward Pyongyang.
“Trump is doing the right thing,” he said, “by demanding absolutely that North Korea must denuclearize and putting constant pressure on the regime.”