NEW YORK, Nov. 30 (UPI) -- Radio broadcasts are changing North Korean perceptions of the outside world as Kim Jong Un may be proving to be an increasingly unpopular leader.
Kim Hyeong-soo, 54, told UPI by Skype from South Korea that he left North Korea because he could not imagine a future where Kim Jong Un, the third member of the ruling family, was running the country.
"I was inspired to leave North Korea after hearing U.S. and South Korean radio broadcasts filtering in," Kim Hyeong-soo said.
The defector, who left North Korea in 2009 when it was easier for brokers to falsify South Korean passports, said he picked up on the information after he began listening to South Korean and U.S. radio programs two to three times a week.
"One day in January 2009 I heard Kim Jong Un had been preliminarily selected as leader, something North Koreans did not know at the time," he said, describing the radio programs as "addictive."
"I received great shock upon hearing the news."
Kim Jong Un was an unknown figure in the family, but Kim Hyeong-soo said he "had a feeling" change was coming to the country because Kim Jong Il had fallen ill in 2008 and may have begun to pick a successor.
"So I thought, if Kim Jong Il dies, there's hope for me," the defector said.
Any hopes were dashed as he listened to news from Radio Free Asia, or Korean-language broadcasts of Voice of America, of the likelihood of an inexperienced heir taking the helm.
After six years of listening to radio under bed covers with the blinds drawn in his home, Kim Hyeong-soo said he risked his life to defect, leaving North Korea on Feb. 7, 2009.
He said he spent some time in a North Korean prison before he was released and crossed the border again.
"I realized that in North Korea, no matter how hard you try, according to your identity and background, if you are not well-connected, you cannot work your life out," he said.
"But in South Korea if you work hard, and identify your goals, there are many opportunities," the defector said, adding capitalism is not possible in North Korea because the state confiscates private savings and bans citizens from retaining foreign currency.
There are now more than 30,000 North Koreans who have resettled in the South, and some have said they have faced issues with adjusting to life, and with discrimination.
But Kim Hyeong-soo, who arrived in the South when he was 45, spoke highly of his new homeland.
"I would not have realized what freedom was if I had not defected to the South," Kim said. "People live in constant fear in North Korea, afraid they might be caught doing something wrong.
"Truthfully, I'm very happy," he added.
The decision to leave North Korea may not have always been an easy choice for him.
A graduate of North Korea's Kim Il Sung University, the regime's top school, Kim lived in Pyongyang and worked in food product development and research.
After arriving in the South, Kim considered opening a restaurant and obtained multiple chef certifications, in addition to pursuing training in broadcasting and as a lecturer on unification.
During the height of the Great Famine in the 1990s, Kim was shielded from mass starvation because of rations that were limited to North Korea's favored classes.
Kim had no idea of the extent of the famine until he visited his hometown of Hyesan, in Yanggang Province in 1998, and saw for the first time bodies on the streets, a sight unimaginable in Pyongyang.
"I was so shocked by the indifference of passersby as I walked to my friend's house," the defector said.
His friend reminded him of his privileges, telling Kim his rations and "good job" had spared him of the shutdown of the distribution system in regional cities.
"People were dying on the streets because there was no one to bury them, especially if their parents or siblings had already died," Kim said.
Nearly two decades later, North Koreans are aware of what life in South Korea is actually like and see through Pyongyang's propaganda.
More officials in the regime are watching South Korean TV shows being smuggled into the country, and when there is drinking involved, they share news about the outside world, Kim said.
"'So I hear in the South, this Lee Myung-bak guy is president'," Kim said, recalling a past conversation among North Korean midranking officials as they shared liquor.
The mention of the outside world would embolden others to volunteer information about the South.
"Yeah, I hear he was chief executive of Hyundai," said another, according to Kim, which made a third companion say, "I heard as mayor of Seoul he developed the Cheonggyecheon stream," referring to a massive urban renewal project.
Nearly all people in Pyongyang know what the South is like and North Koreans desire unification, because they believe it would improve their lives, Kim said.