Defector: Desperate North Korea sees South as last lifeline

By Elizabeth Shim Contact the Author   |  Feb. 24, 2018 at 7:04 PM
share with facebook
share with twitter
Sign up for our weekly Korea Now newsletter
An exclusive report putting perspective on the week's most important developments.

SEOUL, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- North Korea's reconciliatory overtures during the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics are a sign the regime is struggling under heavy sanctions, a defector who survived the Great Famine said Saturday.

Sung-chul, who did not give his last name in an interview with UPI, said the détente between North and South should be treated with caution, and the North is likely to extract more concessions from the South.

"The window for dialogue that was closed has opened a bit," Sung-chul said, "One could look at it as a positive development, but personally I am opposed."

The defector was an adolescent when his father died and his mother lost her job when North Korea's food distribution system collapsed. He spent several years as a young adult in China, before finding asylum in South Korea, where he has been living for more than a decade.

He said South Korea's progressive administration is Kim Jong Un's last lifeline as formerly reliable partners, like China, are no longer accepting key North Korea exports like iron ore.

"In the case of North Korea, because of [United Nations] and international sanctions...the only country where they can knock on the door and get an answer is the South," Sung-chul said. "They are knocking, and the South is acting a bit foolishly."

The "foolishness" the defector described extends to a decision from Seoul to agree to Kim Yong Chol's attendance at the closing ceremony of the Winter Games.

Kim Yong Chol is the North Korean vice chairman of the ruling Workers' Party Central Committee who is suspected to have been the chief planner of a 2010 torpedo attack against the South Korean warship Cheonan.

"I am against the arrival of Kim Yong Chol to South Korea," the defector, a naturalized South Korean citizen, said. "They're all coming because all other doors of opportunity are closed."

Still, he said, the Olympic exchange could have been a real eye-opener for the 700 delegates from the North, a "special experience," that would have allowed them to "directly see how developed the South is."

Sung-chul, who escaped from the northeastern city of Musan, suggested North Korean athletes and cheerleaders represent the elite, who live in a different world than where he once belonged in the regime's hierarchy.

"I have never been in their position" in North Korea, he said. "So I can't say whether they are happy or sad to see the outside world."

The defector knows a few things about hardships, having lost his mother, who survived the famine of the '90s, to uterine cancer.

He finished second in an annual English-language speech contest on Saturday sponsored by Seoul-based Teach North Korean Refugees.

He dedicated his speech to his mother, who was twice repatriated to North Korea from China.

Like other defectors previously exposed to life in the world's second-largest economy, where food is not hard to find, Sung-chul crossed the border after his arrest and was separated from family until he returned after learning his mother had become terminally ill.

"My mom looked so incredibly different than what I had expected," he said, describing one of his last encounters with her in North Korea. "She looked so emaciated without any fat on her body. Her bottom looked like a triangle."

The experience informs his belief the North Korean regime should not be given unconditional aid, including medical assistance, because when it is unmonitored it is not being distributed to those most in need, he said.

Other defectors, including a young woman who identified herself as "Jinmi" and finished first in the Saturday speech contest, testified to the power of family bonds in a country where underprivileged populations are left to fend for themselves.

Jinmi, who is now one of the 31,000 North Korean defectors who have resettled in the South, said she was lucky because of the support of people like her sister who urged the defector to pursue her studies rather than making a living in "illegal markets" in the North.

"She didn't want me to look like a motherless child in the market," the defector said.

Jinmi also said she had heard her sister in the North was sentenced to 10 years in political prison, but is making plans for her resettlement in the South.

"I can do nothing for now, except pray for her to be alive, and wait for my sister to come home," the defector said.

Related UPI Stories
Trending Stories
Photos