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North Korea defectors urge new perspective of Kim regime

Hope in North Korea can be found in its markets, young refugees say.

By Elizabeth Shim
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North Korea defectors urge new perspective of Kim regime
Tourists walk at the Imjingak Pavilion near the demilitarized zone in Paju, South Korea, on Sunday. Photo by Keizo Mori/UPI | License Photo

SEOUL, Aug. 27 (UPI) -- North Koreans resettled in the South are viewing diplomatic engagement with the Kim Jong Un regime more favorably than they did a few months ago -- before South Korean President Moon Jae-in met with the North Korean leader during a historic summit in Panmunjom.

Jeong-cheol, a North Korean defector who spoke of his experiences during a speech competition hosted by Seoul-based Teach North Korean Refugees on Saturday, said many North Korea watchers are too preoccupied with politics and the North's weapons program.

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A different perspective could help, he said.

"If we want North Korea to change, we need to change the way we look at North Korea," said Jeong-cheol, who like all the defectors who spoke Saturday was identified only by his first name. "We have been obsessed with political matters over the past decades, with fear and hatred blinding our eyes."

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The young North Korean refugee said his positive views of diplomacy do not mean he likes Kim.

"To put it bluntly, I spent 15 years in hunger," he said, blaming the regime for the catastrophic famine that killed millions in the 1990s.

But "extending an olive branch" could "alleviate the suffering of millions," he said.

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Jeong-cheol recalled his direct experience of starvation when his father, a teacher at an elementary school, could no longer feed the family on his income.

The refugee said it is mothers in North Korea who feed their families.

"My mother went to the [markets]. She sold everything she could, such as rabbits, locally sourced produce, even copper," he said. "I was able to survive because of the markets, which are against North Korea's so-called socialism."

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Loss of control

Jeong-cheol said authorities are struggling to control the North Korean people because of marketization, a view that was shared by other defectors on Saturday.

"Nowadays there are many people who don't take part in state activities," he said, adding the regime has become dependent on the markets since they began collecting taxes.

A recent study from Beyond Parallel, a project run by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, shows Pyongyang generates $56.8 million in tax revenue annually from the markets.

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The reality of the markets, and their legality, in the eye of the regime is complicated, however.

Chanyang, a young female defector and mother, said the markets were "formally established" in almost every corner of North Korea by 2003.

Authorities officially approve of the sale of goods that are made in China and North Korea, but ordinary North Koreans go to market to procure highly sought-after and prohibited South Korean merchandise.

"Behind the scenes, the amount of illegal trade is increasing, and media contents from South Korea and even South Korean appliances are smuggled into these markets," the defector said.

Questioning reality

Other refugees confirmed markets were the source of banned South Korean media they secretly watched to satisfy their hunger for information about the outside world.

A female defector, "Ann," said she stopped believing government propaganda as she watched South Korean television dramas.

The shows may have motivated her to leave North Korea.

"After moving to three other countries, I reached South Korea," she said. "My original expectations came from dramas."

The world of relative freedom that North Koreans can see in South Korean television shows is a far cry from the reality of most North Koreans, another defector, "Julie," said at the TNKR event.

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North Korea's classification system limits upward mobility.

"This caste system is the biggest reason North Korea can control people and maintain their regime," the defector said. "North Koreans that live in this system are put in 'rooms' based on political loyalty and status."

"The caste system decides your prospect in every area of life, including education, occupation, party membership, marriage and even food supply."

Casey Lartigue, one of the co-founders of TNKR, told UPI his program is becoming more popular with North Korean refugees.

"It's all growing, they're finding us by word of mouth," Lartigue said, adding the contest invites refugees to find the courage to speak out.

"They say, 'I'm not going to win, but I don't mind the challenge'," he said.

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