North Korean Defector Describes Vast Network of Smuggling, Drugs, and Censorship Under Kim Jong-Un's Regime

Editor's Note: Jieun Baek spoke with a North Korean defector, with the pseudonym Nehemiah Park. Park defected from North Korea to China in 1997, and he's currently 30 years old.

J:  What made you want to defect?

P: I wanted to fulfill the things I dreamt of. Also, I wanted to make my family happy by working in business in China.

J: How did you defect? What route did you take? How long did it take you? Who helped you? How much did bribes cost? Did you use technology (ex. cell phones, internet, walkie talkies, satellite phones)?

P: In the summer of 1997, I walked 50km from my home to a border city of China and North Korea. I spent the night there and I swam across the border the next day around 2 PM. It took me about 10 minutes to cross the border and from there, I walked to the city of Hwaryong in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. I stayed up until 10:00 a.m. the next morning without sleep or rest. On my way there, I hid on the side of the road every time I heard a sound of a car passing by,  as I was afraid it might be the Chinese police. I did not have any technology to guide my way, so I had to constantly stop and ask people where to go, and finally I met up with my father’s friend in the city of Hwaryong.

J: Where were you when you first used the internet and what did you search for?

P: In 1997, I first used the internet at an internet cafe in the city of Hwaryong. I did not know how to use the internet, but I wanted to search how North Korean defectors like myself could go to South Korea. But I had to close the internet browser because I was afraid of Chinese people of Korean descent sitting next to me. Then four years later in 2001, while I was working as a room-service waiter at Kyung-Po hotel in Shantung Province, I was able to go to internet cafe frequently. I used South Korean portal site daum.net to play internet games and searched news about North Korean defectors when people around me weren’t looking.

J: What illicit networks do you have experience with? How did you get involved? How did you see technology used in illicit networks?

P:  From 1997 to 2000 while I was living in the city of Hwaryong, I worked for a mafia of Chinese people of Korean descent. My boss partnered with North Korea’s foreign currency earning office and smuggled used cars from North Korea that are made in Japan and sold them in China. He always carried two cellphones and also carried a separate SIM card. I sometimes answered his phone for him and it was usually with the Chinese police chief who shared information with my boss. We usually smuggled about 30 cars at a time from North Korea, and Chinese special enforcement police secretly protected my boss. The smuggling team was made up of Chinese people of Korean descent and the people of Han, and each member had a walkie-talkie.

After we smuggled these cars from North Korea, we hid them in multiple locations, with a few in the mountains and a few in underground garages. When a buyer made a purchase, we used cellphones and walkie-talkies to bypass the police inspection and safely transport the cars to the location that the buyer wanted to pick them up at.

In 2002, I got a call from my father who is in North Korea. One of his friend’s sons who works at North Korean security command was looking for ways to earn foreign currency, and he asked whether I knew a potential buyer for opium. I did not know anyone so I told him no. In 2005, after I got to South Korea, my father asked me the same question but I told him never to request such a thing again or I will not answer his calls anymore.

J: In what ways do you think North Korea depend on illicit networks to exist as a country?

P: After Kim Il Sung passed away, North Korea grew opium at the national level. In my town, we utilized high school students to harvest the opium and each community farm was ordered to produce 60Kg of opium. I think the North Korean government came up with this after Western countries imposed economic sanctions on them. Maintaining the dictatorship required smuggling cars and opium.

J: How do you think technology can help break down these illicit networks in North Korea?

P: It’s on the North Korea-China border that North Korea is utilizing the illicit network. We should use YouTube, Twitter, and Google+ to expose these illicit networks to the whole world and stop them from doing these embarrassing actions. You can do all kinds of bad things in the dark, but you cannot when you are under the light. I believe technology should be used to shed a light on North Korea’s illicit network. We should let everyone around the world know what North Korea is doing through social networks.

J: Do illicit networks ever help people in North Korea?

P: Illicit networks operated by the North Korean government are used to maintain the regime, and never used to improve the lives of their people. Also, such inhumane things like human trafficking where they buy and sell North Korean women happen frequently. But illicit networks operated by the people of North Korea (to call their families in South Korea, to share information, to watch South Korean TV shows, etc.) are the only channel for the people of North Korea to communicate with the outside world, so we should expand these networks.

J: How has access to information impacted your life?

P: I got a hold of an audio cassette player (left over from France) when I was 15 years old. It was rock music and it was shocking to me. My father also told me stories about how wealthy China and South Korea are and it had a big impact on my decision to defect from North Korea. I was able to come to South Korea with the help of a couple of people who I met through the internet. Internet also helped me find information on my migration to life in South Korea. I also use Google to help me with my homework.

J: How is information being snuck into North Korea? What kinds of information is being snuck in (ex.radio programs books, DVDs, music, magazines, pictures)? What radio stations, programs, organizations are helping North Koreans have information from the outside world?

P: In 2007, I sent an MP3 player to my family in North Korea through a relative in China which had the New Testament recorded. In 2008, I sent them 3 cellphones, as well as an electronic dictionary, camera, DVD, Joseph Movie, and MP4 player with a lot of video contents. In North Korea, products made in South Korea are the symbol of wealth. I think this resulted from South Korean dramas and shows that were smuggled through DVD and MP4s.

J: How can technology help North Korea?

P: In the wake of the Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East, many people wonder why there was no revolution in North Korea. But you have to understand that social networking services were behind the Jasmine Revolution. There is no such infrastructure in North Korea. We need to build this infrastructure in North Korea so that the people can share information and communicate with each other. Then naturally they would find out all of the wrongdoings of their government and they can join forces to demonstrate against their government.

We should target the Kaesong industrial region, Rajin-Sonbong region, and Sinuiju development area and show the people of North Korea a sample of a city that is equipped with technology. Then people in other cities will hear about these samples and through that, I believe North Korea will be forced to slowly open their closed doors.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Jieun Baek

Currently a Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government where she graduated 2014. Graduated from Harvard College 2009 as a Government concentrator, where interest in North Korea sparked. Love PolicyMic. Always open to a good conversation!

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