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'I Realized I'd Been Brainwashed': The North Korean Defector Living in London

"I grew up seeing many cases of people being taken to prison because they had said one wrong word. We have a saying: 'There is an ear, even on the wall.'"

by Kim Joo Il, as told to Tabitha Lasley
Mar 20 2014, 3:00pm

Kim Joo Il

Kim Joo Il, 39, served eight years in the North Korean army. In 2005, after realizing his country wasn't quite the paradise he'd been led to believe it was, he escaped the Hermit Kingdom by swimming to China. He now lives in London, where he's the vice president of the Association of Korean Residents in Europe, works with North Korean refugees, and raises awareness about the North Korean regime's human-rights violations. I recently caught up with him, and this is what he told me about life in his native country.

When I heard Kim Il-sung had died, I was near the 38th parallel [the DMZ between North and South Korea]. There was no electricity in North Korea that day, but I was so near the South Korean border that I heard them announce his death over the loudspeakers. I thought to myself, That’s bullshit—he’s not dead. How can the Great Leader be dead? He’s immortal.

It was impossible to imagine. I cried. We all did. Every morning, soldiers would line up to put flowers on his memorial, and we were all crying, crying, crying. Everyone was saying, "How can we survive, how will we live, what’s our destiny, now that our leader has gone?" If you’re brainwashed, that’s how you think.

At school, 30 percent of our studies had been about the Great Leader. And about 20 percent of our schooling was about the bourgeoisie—people who have money and land. They were the enemy. We learned that we were living in paradise and we had to make sure these people didn’t interfere.

They’d collect and check our textbooks each month. In my class, two boys were rivals. One was annoyed that the other was doing well, so he borrowed his textbook, which had a portrait of Kim Il-sung on it. He drew a small, funny mark on the portrait, and then gave it back. They found the mark when they checked the book, and the family of the first boy disappeared overnight. This sort of thing is quite normal—it’s called "guilt by association." I grew up seeing many cases of people being taken to prison because they had said one wrong word. We have a saying: "There is an ear, even on the wall."

I was ten when I saw my first public execution. I sat there thinking, He committed this crime, he threatened our paradise, he should be punished. The man was my classmate’s brother-in-law. They said he’d been to China and stolen something from a Chinese museum. The whole school had to witness it. Everyone had to go to public executions, so they’d do them in big stadiums. Seating was important; if they knew you’d been to China, they’d sit you at the front. If you had a tendency to demonstrate, they’d sit you on the next tier. It was a warning.

I joined the army when I was 17. For men, it’s compulsory to serve ten years. In North Korea, they have 54 academies that look like colleges on the outside, but inside they train people to become high-ranking officers. They make these academies look like colleges to avoid criticism, because other countries would say there were too many people training to be soldiers.

I felt honored to finally be in the army. I really believed it only existed for the sake of the people’s happiness. That’s what I’d been taught, and I was a good student. I was shocked when I was actually placed, because it was totally different from what I’d learned at the academy. The night before we went in, we were given new military uniforms. The first day, the senior officers told us to take them off. They took the new uniforms and we were given their old ones. When you join up, your friends and family give you presents and food. The first night, that stuff is always stolen by the officers. I complained and said, "I want my things back." For complaining, I was beaten. They said, "This is the army—get used to it."

I was beaten at least once a day for three years. Then I became a captain, and I assaulted people. I didn’t have any clue that what I was doing was wrong. It’s normal, everyday life for soldiers. People don’t know about human rights in the army. They’ve never even heard of them.

My first detail was in the "kitchen police." I was given rice and told to make seven dishes. I said, "How can I, with no ingredients except rice?" They said, "You have to do what you can." At midnight, they woke us up and gave each of us a bag. We had to go to a local farm and dig up the food. One person stole tomatoes, one cabbage, one potatoes. That's how we fed ourselves every day, by stealing.

We were hungry 24 hours a day. We were meant to get 600 grams of rice a day, but everyone on the supply chain would take a bit, so by the time it got to us it was more like 200 grams. That’s why we all had malnutrition, and why so many soldiers tried to escape the army.

One idea the government keeps pushing is that, in North Korea, no one dies of starvation. As a captain, I had to report soldiers’ deaths, but I couldn’t say they’d starved. We wrote that they'd had acute colitis—an inflammation of the colon that can lead to weight loss, fever, and bleeding, among other symptoms—on their death certificates. A lot of female soldiers died, and a woman's hair will fall out before she dies of starvation. So when they died, they would be bald and totally flat chested, meaning you could no longer tell by looking at [the bodies] whether they were women or not.

Most people in North Korea aren’t allowed to go from province to province, but part of my job was traveling around the country, finding soldiers who’d gone AWOL because they were so hungry. They knew they’d face huge consequences, so they’d always go back home and have one final meal with their mothers. Traveling around, I started to realize something was very wrong. Everywhere I went, people were starving. Every train station had a health center, and there would be piles of corpses there, just lying about.

Often, because there was no electricity, the trains would be days late. People would offer you a bed at their house in return for a kilo of rice. But I slept at the station. I’d heard rumors that once they got you into their houses, these people would kill you and eat your flesh. There were always rumors going around that, at certain markets, people were selling human bodies to eat. One man was publicly executed for it. He was a doctor and had been digging up corpses from mass graves, then making dumplings out of them and selling them.

I'd had doubts about the regime for years, but I decided to escape from North Korea after my niece died. When I came home, my family fed me well, so I had no idea they were suffering. But they were. My sister sent her daughter out to beg her neighbors for some rice one day, and they gave her dried corn. You’re not meant to eat dried corn, as it makes you very, very thirsty. But she wasn’t with her mother, and she didn’t know this. She ate the dried corn, then drank and drank and drank. She got very bloated, and it killed her. She was two years old.

One day, I had to find a soldier who’d gone AWOL in his home province of Hamgyong, which is on the border with China. I’d been there before and thought about escaping but failed because I was worried about what would happen to my parents. This time, I decided that—even though I was passing through my hometown—I wouldn't go and see my parents, because I knew that if I did I’d change my mind.

I put the soldiers I'd found on the train and got off. Then I took another train north, to the river between Hamgyong and China. It was a full moon that night and too bright to cross. After two days, it was gloomy enough to go. I walked down to the river at midnight, but because there was a drought at that time the water level had gone down. All that was left at the top of the river were pebbles, and pebbles made a noise. So I lay my coat down and rolled down to the water, very slowly.

There were guards every 50 meters along the river. As I got near to what I thought was a large rock, I realized it was a guard holding a gun. I was ready to fight and die; this was life or death for me. But it was August and very warm, and as I got closer I saw he’d fallen asleep. I changed direction, got down to the water, and started swimming.

Reaching China and seeing how it compared to North Korea confirmed everything I’d thought—I realized that we’d been brainwashed. I traveled through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand and arrived in Britain two years later. I had once believed that North Korea was paradise. But after defecting to the UK, I realize it's anything but.

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