North Korea 'guest workers' could undermine Kim regime, defector says

This is the second in a series of interviews chronicling the changing views of North Korean defectors at a time of heightened tensions.
By Elizabeth Shim  |  Sept. 19, 2017 at 6:00 AM
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SEOUL, South Korea, Sept. 19 (UPI) -- North Korea is accelerating the development of nuclear weapons, but despite increased international scrutiny, staggering inattention is being paid to its 25 million people.

That could very well serve as the Achilles heel in U.S. policy toward the Kim Jong Un regime, according to Kang Chol-hwan, a prominent defector-activist who grew up in a North Korea prison camp and later wrote a memoir of his experiences.

Kang, 49, recently told UPI the key to resolving the nuclear standoff ultimately lies with the people of North Korea, who are the primary agents of change in the country.

"The power to stop nuclear weapons development is in the hands of the North Korean people," The Aquariums of Pyongyang author said in the interview in Seoul. "North Korea is now in a different place than where it was during the Sunshine Policy era. People in North Korea now know what life is like in the South."

Kang was referring to the period in South Korean history when former President Kim Dae-jung ended Cold War-era hostilities with the rival North through acts of reconciliation.

The notion ordinary North Koreans have the power to turn the fate of their country around is still hard to grasp.

North Koreans are often depicted as repressed or brainwashed, marching obediently under the watchful gaze of their leader in military parades during national holidays, or shouting chants, praising Kim Jong Un.

Refugees' descriptions of human rights abuses, and far-reaching surveillance, have also left the impression that it may be impossible to stage an uprising.

But according to Kang, structural weaknesses of the regime are giving way to people power in new ways.

Not only are North Koreans more informed about the outside world because of media flows into the country, more people are likely to be disillusioned with the regime as they are being forced out of the country to serve as indentured laborers -- and wind up seeing what the rest of the world has to offer.

It's for this reason Kang says he sees overseas laborers as agents of transformation, and thinks the United States and the international community should be careful about banning North Korean labor.

"Overseas laborers can be agents of change," Kang said. "At first they are grateful just for the three meals a day they receive as compensation, but once outside they will realize" what they are missing, he added.

In 2015, Lim Il, a defector who escaped a life of forced labor in Kuwait, said he was never paid for 12 hours of daily manual labor at insufferably hot construction sites, while other foreign workers at the site not only were compensated but also given a three-hour lunch break.

Lim and other North Koreans were allowed only an hour for lunch despite heat exhaustion.

Kang says Kim Jong Un's continued deployment of forced laborers is a sign of his economic desperation in the face of heavier sanctions.

"Do you think he's sending them out because he wants to?" the activist said, adding embargoes on North Korean mineral exports are taking a toll on the regime. "Sending out laborers is very dangerous. They are taking a risk."

"Overseas, North Koreans see workers from Africa, from Pakistan, drinking Coca-Cola, while they can't."

In Kang's view, the more people Kim has to deploy overseas so he can spend money on villas and fine wine, the better.

"If their numbers become 100,000, 200,000, then 300,000, they become extremely threatening to the regime," Kang said.

Instead of sanctions, the United Nations should encourage Russia and China, two countries that host North Korean "guest workers," to raise labor standards for existing workers, giving them fair wages and freedom of mobility.

"Then they become 300,000 defectors," Kang said.

Not only are state-sanctioned workers dangerous to the state, in North Korea, the elements of collapse, or at least major political change, are there, he said.

"When Kim Jong Un killed off his relatives, that destroyed people's trust in him," Kang said, referring to the highly public execution of Jang Song Thaek, the North Korean leader's uncle-in-law.

"At least Kim Jong Il listened to the advice of his subordinates."

It is because the current leader has fallen into disfavor with North Koreans, he needs to "show off his power, and fire off missiles to prove he is still powerful," Kang said.

"How is Kim going to attack Guam?" he added, calling the North Korean claim of a plan to attack the U.S. territory a "lie."

An undated image shows the test-fire of a medium-range ballistic missile Pukguksong-2 at an undisclosed location in North Korea. Photo courtesy of KCNA/EPA

That statement came in August, when a verbal warning from U.S. President Donald Trump threatening "fire and fury" against North Korea led to subsequent threats from Pyongyang to create an "enveloping fire" around Guam.

Trump fell under criticism for responding to North Korean rhetorical threats with rhetoric of his own, but Kang said he doesn't think that's a bad thing, because Trump's hints of a pre-emptive attack are something to be feared in North Korea.

But even credible threats are not enough to make Pyongyang think twice, or steer North Korea policy in the right direction, Kang said.

"The point of North Korea policy should be the North Korean people," the activist said, while discussing what he sees as shortcomings of past South Korean administrations.

President Kim Dae-jung, for example, took reconciliation with the North to an unprecedented level, but his Sunshine Policy did not bring changes to the lives of ordinary North Koreans and only gave the regime more time to consolidate power, according to Kang.

"Kim Dae-jung's policy was fake sunshine," he said.

Kang also said South Korean conservatives, former President Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, while stepping back from a posture of leniency, did not include a substantial policy that could bypass the North Korean leadership to engage 25 million North Koreans.

"President Trump needs to realize this is not a regime that will stop nuclear development in order to engage," Kang said. "Any message [from the United States] should be sent directly to the North Korean people."

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