Sunday, November 1, 2015

Aquariums of Pyeongyang: An Interview

Scottish expat Barry Welsh has held Seoul Book and Culture Club for several years. The club is dedicated to featuring Korean related books and movies mostly but other popular media have been themed. This particular free meet-the-author interview was moderated by Kurt Achin, a Seoul-based correspondent and Bureau Chief for Voice of America, and was a crowd drawer. Of course almost any topic on North Korea draws in the crowds, but not only was the forum well attended, but many of the rather large audience (myself included) had already read the book -- Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag -- and came with questions for the author in the hour-long Q&A following Kurt Achin's prepared questions.

The forum kicked off with thanks and appreciation for Kang Chol-hwan, the author, in sharing his time and experiences with the Seoul Book and Culture Club, but Kurt Achin went right to the heart of the matter and what is on everyone's minds, was the book sensationalized, do North Korean defectors "spice up" their narratives?
Mr. Kang just said that it had been 20 years since he had defected, and the cover of the book was of his family. He added that recently 30,000 North Koreans had defected (from concentration camps, the military, and average citizens). Concentration camps were divided into two parts -- one for political prisoners and is highly controlled and very strict, from this camp people cannot be set free and they will die there; the other for economic prisoners and is controlled by the ordinary police. Mr. Kang and his family had been in this latter kind of gulag, as are most defectors, with the exception of 안병철 who had been in the political gulag. That said, human rights abuse in both camps in very harsh!
Kurt Achin: George W. Bush had been impressed by Kang Chol-hwan's story and had invited him to the White House. Obama hasn't made such an invitation, but if he did, how would the conversation be different?
"I wonder if Obama would invite me. 10 years ago when President Bush invited me we [South Koreans?] weren't focused on human rights; we were still thinking on the Sunshine Policy. However, when GW Bush invited me, it was a chance to acquaint him with real human rights issues that needed to be recognized and addressed. So when we met, I was able to suggest two ways to improve on human rights dialog issues with the North -- to encourage North Koreans to flee, and to disseminate info about the West to North Korea. 
Actually when I was in the concentration camp (somewhere between 1985-1990?), balloons had been disseminated and one balloon burst. In it were socks, daily necessities and flyers. From a flyer I heard for the first time that South Korea had been invaded by North Korea, and as I read it, I knew that I was listening to truth. 
In 2007, the North Korean Strategy Center first started disseminating balloons across the North Korean border, but North Korea could use this as propaganda to consolidate NK soldiers, and South Koreans didn't like it because of the potential for causing more of a schism (there were a lot of political difficulties at that time between the North and the South), so the strategy was revised -- dissemination between the Chinese and North Korean border was better for disseminating information, particularly because there was already communication exchange across that border.
Kurt Achin: Is the much talked about marketization of North Korea changing North Koreans?
The three Kims (the Kim Dynasty) is characterized as good at managing government power but lousy at maintaining their economy. For example, not paying attention to the people, not ensuring that citizens have water and electricity. They make strange policies that further imbalance social structures and appearances of social structures. For example, they promote horse-riding for kids, but the kids don't even get a solid meal a day. There is the government sponsored water theme park for kids, but again only a handful of kids in the stratified society could even think of going there. There is a massive 50-storied residential complex, but in reality it is a ghost house. These examples just point at how ineffective policies and infrastructures are made to help the people. There is no synergy between the market economy and the government economy. Also, because the government has proven itself unreliable again and again, North Koreans opt for US dollars and Chinese yuans rather than putting trust in the North Korean currency.

Kurt Achin: Have you been in contact with your family via "handphone" like many other North Korean defectors?
I used to send money and letters but in 2009 my sister was accused of colluding with a South Korean and I have since lost contact. I've asked the United Nations for help but there is nothing they can do. North Korea will not answer.
Kurt Achin: How would you compare North Korean and South Korean political strategies where citizens are concerned?
North Korea is better than South Korea in one way only -- that's in the information dissemination sector. 30,000 people work in various offices for info dissemination, and they are highly skilled at this.  
Supporting North Korea is a crime in the United States and in South Korea, but in both of these countries, because of freedom of speech, people are overlooking the North Korean spies speaking out blatantly and this is a very serious situation. 
Japan has repatriated 100,000 people and this is a big human rights issue. Japan is supposed to be a democracy so this oversight does not reflect the humans rights of a democracy.

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