Voices of North Korea: University student decries lack of access to books

Editor’s Note: David A. Caprara, a journalist working with the Global Peace Foundation in Seoul, South Korea, recently conducted a series of interviews with North Korean defectors. Their names are withheld to protect them from retaliation. The interviews were conducted in Korean, interpreted by Yeon Jung Kwak. The transcripts are lightly edited for length and clarity. This is the fourth of five in a series.
By David A. Caprara  |  Jan. 22, 2015 at 7:30 AM
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This student of philosophy at Sogang University works as a speaker and organizer for the Peace Education Project (Pyeong Hwa Gyo Yuk), promoting unification among South Korean youth. The project is supported by the Woo Yang Foundation, which hosts talks between North Korean defectors and middle- and high school students in Seoul. A native of Ham Kyeong Buk Do province, he came to South Korea in 2008.

Q: What were you doing in North Korea before you left?

I was a university student at Cheong Jin University and had completed three years of study toward my degree. I was a major in Korean Studies.

My mother was a high school teacher, and as a child I loved reading books. I would go to the high school library often as a child and further developed my love for reading. When I got older I wanted to read more, but there isn't a good selection of books available in North Korea, and it is almost impossible to find books that are written in other countries.

One day my father went to China and came back with a book on philosophy. This book motivated me to study more.

Q: What is university life like in North Korea?

Education is competitive, and most of what is taught is information that is to be memorized rather than debated and defended. This is actually pretty characteristic of university life in South Korea, as well.

In Seoul, after classes most students have free time that they can spend either studying on their own or in taking up a part-time job. In North Korea, however, students have to help their professor harvest crops at a farm owned and run by the university. This takes up a lot of time.

In the university libraries, it is very difficult to find good books. Students aren't actually allowed to enter the area where the bookshelves are and select books on their own; everything has to be done through the librarian. You say "I want X type of book," and then they bring something to the desk for you. The selection is very limited.

Q: How do the philosophy books in North Korea differ from what one would find in South Korea?

In North Korea we have philosophy books, but they only focus on the biographies of the philosophers, and not actually what sorts of things they thought. They don't contain anything that makes one question life or the societal system that they are living under. They do not make one think or doubt. Anything bordering on the realm of real philosophy only deals with the ideals of the party and the Kim leaders.

Q: After leaving the country and being exposed to an academic environment where you are able to think about life and the society that you live in, how have your views of North Korea changed?

In the North, truth is absolute. But in philosophy and in life, truth is endless, everywhere, and we have to study it again and again throughout our lives because it is always changing. In North Korea, one view is right, and all opposing views are wrong. You are not able to respect what other people think about subjects. Since moving to South Korea, I've learned to respect differing views, even if I don't agree with them, because truths are arrived at through experience, and no two peoples' experiences are the same.

As an example of this, I had one friend who suffered a lot in North Korea and was sent to prison and tortured on several occasions. This friend was under the belief that Korean unification was the answer to our problems, but that the only way that this could ever be attained would be for South Korea to invade North Korea militarily and crush the dictatorship of the Kims through force.

I myself did not suffer so much in North Korea and had a very different experience. I also believe that unification is the answer, but that this sort of peace should be a process that evolves gradually through dialogue and exchange. Our approaches are different, but I understand that this is because of our histories. If I had suffered a life of oppression similar to my friend, I too would have probably adopted a more hardline set of beliefs and solutions to our problems.

Q: Do North Koreans actually believe the propaganda that they hear?

In public and on television, people are loyal. But in their private lives, most people do not care or have time for these things. We don't bow to pictures of Kim Il Sung in our homes or put flowers in front of his picture. The common people are more concerned with working and trying to survive.

Loyalty to the government is not the most important thing when you are trying to survive. The loyalty that one observes on the news is just a survival technique.

Q: What sort of changes need to take place in the minds of North Koreans to bring about unification?

Rather than focusing on changing the lower class, the elites need to be changed. The lower class does not have time to think about revolution; they are just trying to survive. The people who need to be targeted are elite leaders, university students, and professors. Slowly, we need to change the way that they think about North Korea.

Q: If Korea is unified, what sort of challenges will have to be faced?

People in South Korea are very materialistic, and people here are judged based on their appearance and the things that they have purchased. This vanity will cause those in the North to be judged by those in the South and will make people in the North feel embarrassed that they do not live under the same standards. Socially, this will be one of the biggest difficulties.

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Topics: Kim Il Sung
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