Through the DPRK Information Membrane: Interview with Blaine Harden
In 2010 I was talking to a young defector at my home on a hill in western Seoul. As I was making tea, she looked over at the nearby bookshelves, where she alighted upon “난 역사의 진리를 보았다,” a memoir written in 1998 by first generation North Korean revolutionary Hwang Jang-yop, the most senior Korean Workers’ Party official ever to defect.
Pointing to the text, the young woman declared, “If you only read one book about North Korea before you die… make sure it’s that one.”
I’ve read Hwang’s book many times since then, but others have not been so lucky since it has never been translated in full (in part here; English publisher required). In the meantime, an increasing number of amazing texts about North Korea for English readers have appeared, including, of course, Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden.
Last week, in the first part of SinoNK’s exclusive interview with Blaine Harden, the author discussed the raw power of Shin Dong-hyuk’s story, one that he has now told in no fewer than 24 languages. Today, in the second part, Harden and SinoNK’s Adam Cathcart discuss the difficulty of mobilizing the power of defector society, in part due to the absence of Hwang, who passed away at his residence in Seoul in 2010 and now rests in Daejeon National Cemetery.
Today’s world is blessed with more and more coverage of the “official” North Korea, the one characterized by goose-stepping soldiers in Kim Il-sung Square and onsite guidance visits by bouffant-haired Kim Jong-un and his handbag-toting wife. Any information is generally better than none, but such things are very carefully choreographed and executed within a politicized framework set out by the Korean Workers’ Party. Thus, they are far from representative of ordinary life for most DPRK citizens. That’s partly why, as Harden himself notes in the interview, the community in Seoul is long overdue a new leader.- Christopher Green, Co-editor
Through the DPRK Information Membrane: Interview with Blaine Harden
by Adam Cathcart
Adam Cathcart (AC): The North Korean media represents defectors as an existential threat, labeling people like Shin with phrases like “human scum.” But what about the redefectors, like the story of Pak Jong-suk reported in the Washington Post?
Blaine Harden (BH): In the story that the Washington Post’s Chico Harlan reported it’s clear that the regime put pressure on the family back in North Korea. It seems that a mother went back to to try to help her loved ones. That’s part of the story. Still, based on my conversations with defectors, life for them in South Korea is not easy. They’re always strangers in a strange land. The first generation struggles with language, employment and, in the work place, they have a hard time distinguishing between constructive criticism and complete betrayal. Often, they fly off the handle and quit their jobs and don’t build on success. So even if they don’t get signals from North Korea that their son or uncle or mother is being persecuted, they feel guilty for leaving. Guilt is a huge part of every defector’s life. They leave behind loved ones who stuggle to find enough food. I think that some defectors are vulnerable to pressure and inducements to go back to North Korea simply because they feel so guilty. It’s a shrewd move by North Korea to search for disaffected people. Inevitably, a few may want to go back.
AC: How much of a threat do the 24,000 defectors in South Korea really pose to the North Korean state, besides the power of their stories? Are they linking up in a way that – to use a somewhat dangerous analogy – could be compared to Syria? Given that trust is such a core theme in your book, do you see North Korean defectors as a cohesive group or as fragmented and distrustful?
BH: One of the North Korean regime’s long-term successes in self-preservation is using fear to atomize society. It relentlessly stamps out civil society. It bans medical societies, teachers unions and other professional groups that might allow people to meet together in an atmosphere of trust and to share information. There is no civil society outside the party and the military. People who grow up that way come to South Korea and bring those habits with them. Many defectors in the South remain atomized and isolated – from each other and from groups that could help them adjust to life in a new country. This cripples their ability to organize as a cohesive opposition against the North Korean regime. They certainly are not in any position to form a group that could take guerrilla military action against the North. Part of it is the border. The North-South border – the DMZ – is impossible to infiltrate. Defectors can’t really organize in China. That’s why North Korea has survived so long. The geo-politics of Northeast Asia are conducive to its survival. China insulates it from cross-border guerrilla instability. The heavily militarized DMZ has also served North Korea well. It blocks cross-border meddling and severely limits the flow of information.
But having said that, North Koreans now have a much richer understanding of the outside world. The information seal was substantially breached in the mid-1990s, with the famine, the influx of Western food aid and the rise of street markets. Smugglers and traders brought in food, clothes and electronic gadgets from China. The US and South Korea now bombard North Korea with radio signals, and many North Koreans listen, using cheap radios smuggled in from China. If you have a radio – and a lot of people have radios now, according to surveys of defectors – you know that North Korea is desperately poor and internationally isolated and regarded by the rest of the world as a pariah. But that knowledge has not yet led to political mobilization, because North Koreans remain socially atomized.
AC: Your book deals not just with Shin, but also one of his colleagues – Park Jong-chul. This is a guy who’s a North Korean elite, who ends up going to China, goes around the world, comes back to China to vote, has a baby in China, and brings the kids back in to the DPRK. He is not in an “underground railroad” situation: he’s just trying to make money and continue his life as a semi-elite by bringing it back to North Korea. The problem is that the domestic security forces charge him with being a Christian and dealing with South Korean intelligence. He’s an absolutely fascinating person, and quite a counterpoint to Shin’s life.
BH: What Park’s story shows is that the border with China has become less of a prison wall and more of a semi-permeable membrane. Smugglers, traffickers, legitimate traders and defectors crossed back and forth with relatively ease from the late 1990s to very recently. It appears, however, that Kim Jong-un has significantly restricted the permeability of the border in the past year. What Park’s life shows is that lots of North Korea have gone back and forth across the border China – and made their living that way. There are South Korean studies suggesting that street markets constitute up to 80% of the North’s real economy and those markets are largely supplied by people moving across the border to China. Park was just one of tens of thousands of people who built their lives around transit between North Korea and China. And Shin had the good fortune of meeting him.
AC: Well he’s a crucial person in his development and desire to leave…
BH: Park was the reason that Shin conceived of escaping. Shin never would’ve considered leaving the camp had he not met Park. Shin had been instructed to spy and snitch on Park, but when Park started telling stories about the outside world – especially eating grilled meat in China – Shin made the first free decision of his life. He decided not to snitch, but to listen. Shin told me several times that he mourns Park’s death more than the death of his parents because Park was kinder to him, and so Park was absolutely essential in Shin’s decision to risk the fence.
AC: You write in your book that there is no a celebrity advocating for the North Korean people analogous to the Dalai Lama or Richard Gere for the Tibetan people etc. But they did have Hwang Jong-yop in Seoul for more than 10 years and I understand that his broadcasts have made an impact inside North Korea. Do defectors talk about him regularly as an influential voice, or was he seen as someone who had taken the best of the DPRK system and was living an easy life?
BH:I did not ask that direct question of them. A couple people brought him up.
AC: But he’s not the North Korean celebrity figure that North Korean refugees were looking for: the central oracle.
BH: When I mentioned the power of celebrity in the book, I was referring to a possible reason why human rights abuses in North Korea have remained under the radar in the US and Europe. There has been no Hollywood superstar to champion the suffering of people in the political labor camps. In Burma, Aung Sung Su kyi was sanctified with the Nobel Peace Price and became an international celebrity. She helped focus attention on Burma and helped create the current move away from corrupt military rule. This has not happened for anyone tied to the North Korea story, other than members of the Kim family. They continue to be viewed, to my disgust, as semi-comical figures. On the Daily Show, a key source of news for many young Americans, Kim Jong-il was merely a cartoon character, not a dictator who starved and tortured. The Daily Show made fun of his glasses and hair. A little cartoon figure of the Dear Leader would march across the TV screen as Jon Stewart made clever remarks. Similarly, Kim Jong-un is chubby, has a weird haircut and is easily mocked. He’s perceived as a punchline, not as someone who’s presiding over a human rights catastrophe.
AC: In your Washington Post piece last December, you talked about how skilled the North Korean leadership has become at manipulating their image internationally. Are they really that crafty? Sort of saying “Let’s get out an odd story about a unicorn” because they know Western media will jump on it as a form of entertainment when in fact everybody should be writing about missile launches or what have you?
BH: North Korea’s state media flaunts missile launches, nuclear weapons and images of Kim Jong-un’s young wife. I sometimes think it’s a calculated attempt by Pyongyang to keep the world from focusing on the cruelty that sustains the state. The most important human problem in North Korea is state-enabled malnutrition: a third of the population is chronically hungry and has been for nearly two decades. Almost all of them are poor – the country is poorer than Sudan or Laos. Political labor camps have been in continuous operation for more than half a century. They are places where slavery, rape, public execution and slow-motion starvation are routine. Nearly everyone inside those camps is being worked to death. Missiles, nukes and the leader’s young wife blind us to the nauseating criminality that sustains the Kim family.
AC: Concerning the ethics of writing about North Korea and how we deal with the lack of source transparency: One of the things I’m so glad you did with this book is that you did occasionally turn to the first person, writing about the process and the difficulty of your work with Shin, and with covering North Korea more generally as a journalist. I think that’s hugely valuable for people like me, and for people interested how the stories about North Korea are told. You have a great deal of experience working in other countries – “countries ripe for collapse” as my French edition of your book put it – but I’m wondering how covering North Korea is different from those places.
BH: In all those other countries [Burma, Serbia, Congo, Ethiopia] I went there and I talked to the people who were victimized and I saw it. I went there repeatedly and I got a sense of the texture of life. In Milosevic’s Serbia and in Burma I moved around quietly but the authorities seemed to know I was there. It’s just not possible to do this in North Korea. You are risking long periods of imprisonment and worse in North Korea. But in recent years it has become possible to draw strong journalistic conclusions about what’s happening in the North. There are so many defectors who can be interviewed in South Korea. They are a paranoid bunch, but they to talk to journalists and human rights investigators who are willing to invest the time necessary to overcome their wariness. For the Washington-based Committee on Human Rights in North Korea, David Hawk personally talked to 60 camp survivors. He found a consistent and coherent story about how the camps work. It’s basically the same story I got from Shin, who Hawk also interviewed. So there is now a rock-solid, interview-based, multiply sourced story that is supported by satellite images that have been annotated by camp survivors. The camp story has been documented to the point where it is a respectable piece of social science. I think that when and if the regime collapses, the story we now know about the camps will be verified.
AC: You mention Joshua Stanton in your text as one of the “tireless bloggers” who are writing about North Korea. But Joshua and others have been critical toward the Associated Press for their work in Pyongyang. Is it worth it for AP to be there in Pyongyang? What kind of restrictions are they operating under?
BH: I think it’s worth it for AP to be there. Its reporters and photographers operate under conditions that make it all be impossible to produce journalism that is deeply reported, well-sourced and nuanced. Still, they’re sending out very information and images. The photographer who often goes there, David Guttenfelder, is fantastic. His images of North Korea have enriched our visual understanding of what North Korea is. AP is doing the best it can under impossible conditions. So I admire them for trying to do that. I think it’s the right decision.
AC: On the other hand, North Korea has made quite clear that they’re watching out for academics and journalists who come in with bad intentions for the DPRK – basically implying that any given person could be acting as a spy. What is the discussion among journalists about where the line is in reporting from within North Korea? What about the case of Euna Lee and Laura Ling? How much of a danger exists for any journalist who is legally in the DPRK?
BH: There is no rule of law in North Korea. Journalists, even those with proper credentials, are helpless if the regime wants to lock them up. If you enter the country illegally as a journalist, the risk is insanely high. You will likely spend a lot of time in a very uncomfortable North Korean prison and will probably have to get the US government to send a former president to get you out.
AC: We talked a little bit about the Chinese-North Korean border region, or to be a bit more specific, the Tumen River Valley. What value is there for journalists to go to the region to do a kind of border survey?
BH: I think there is great value in reporting from there, but it’s a very difficult journalistic assignment. Perhaps the biggest risk is endangering defectors – simply by talking to them. There are North Korean spies and security people from the Chinese government in that area. They monitor the movements of South Korean church people and other foreign human rights activists. North Korean defectors try to move secretly to safe-houses. Some work inconspicuously on Chinese farms. If you go there as a foreign journalist (especially if you are white) you are so visible. You can lead Chinese police and North Korean agents to defectors or to the people who are trying to shelter them. By your presence there as a Westerner you can hurt people and lead to their imprisonment and torture in North Korea. Second, you need to have savvy interpreters/fixers who speak Chinese and Korean. And then you have to stay around for quite a long time to learn anything new and important and true. Great journalists have done it. There has been some good reporting in newspapers. Anna Fifield did it for the FT [Financial Times] a few years ago because she speaks Korean and she found some good fixers who moved quietly and safely. But it’s a costly and long-term endeavor, given that most journalists normally turn their stories around in two hours. This is something you have to prepare for over the course of many months, if not years.
Harden, B., New Face at the Top, But the Same North Korea, Washington Post, December 19, 2012,
Cathcart, C., Oprah vs. Juche: Reviewing the Ling/Lee Memoirs, SinoNK, July 3, 2012, and The Golden Age Is Over: Stacking Up Borderlands Sources in Dandong, SinoNK, April 30, 2013.
Harlan, C., Behind North Korea’s propaganda star, a darker story, Washington Post, September 22, 2012.
Hwang, Jang-yop, 나는 역사의 진리를 보았다, Seoul: Zeitgeist Publishing House, 1998.
Kirk, D., The AP Plays Defense on North Korea, 38North, March 22, 2013.