Tue, May 03, 2016 - Page 12 News List

The pursuit of liberty

A North Korean defector shares his story about life in the Hermit Kingdom and his escape to the South

By Dana Ter  /  Staff reporter

North Korean defector Kim Jo-seong was at Taipei American School last week as a keynote speaker for the Model United Nations.

Photo courtesy of TAS Kim Jo-seong

Kim Jo-seong always had a knack for fixing electronic gadgets. He took apart cellphones that were imported and smuggled from Japan, China and Taiwan and pieced them together to pass the time while growing up in a small mining village in North Korea near the Chinese border.

Five years ago, a friend was about to discard his broken mobile phone but Kim convinced the friend to give it to him. He fixed it, and managed to make a few phone calls to acquaintances in China to help him orchestrate his escape. Soon he found himself trekking through China and Southeast Asia, finally resettling in South Korea where he now studies engineering and fixes electronic devices on the side.

Kim shared his story last week at Taipei American School (TAS) where he was one of the guest speakers at the Model United Nations. The other guest was Park Sokeel, Director of Research and Strategy for Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a Seoul-based NGO that works with North Korean refugees. As part of his job, Park liaises with the media and policymakers to share stories like Kim’s and push for a people-focused approach rather than a nuclear weapons approach to reporting and formulating policy towards North Korea.


When I meet with both men at TAS, Kim is all smiles and eager to talk. The thin, bespectacled young man cannot have been much taller than five feet. Tall and bearded, Park towers over him. They joke around when I get them to pose at a staircase for a photo, Park asking me if it looks too much like a prom picture.

In a way, it was serendipity that brought Kim to Taiwan.

“When I was young, I wasn’t so interested in studying or doing sports,” Kim says, with Park translating. “My biggest source of entertainment was playing with electronics.”

When disassembling a couple of Japanese products, he noticed that a lot of the printed circuit boards or PCBs had “Made in Taiwan” stickers on them. He came to the conclusion that Taiwan must be a high-tech nation.

It was differences like these — the discrepancy in the quality of products made in North Korea and elsewhere — that made Kim suspect there might be a better world out there than the one he grew up in.

Kim learned about life in China from his mother who defected several times but was caught, interrogated and tortured each time.

“I heard stories that in China, people eat rice and meat and that access to food isn’t as big of a problem,” Kim says.

Kim’s father, who was from Pyongyang, had gotten into trouble with the government and was sent to work as a miner before passing away after a long illness when Kim was still young. For Kim, one of the hardest things about life in North Korea was not just living in a constant state of fear of provoking the government, but also having to cope with feelings of depression.

“It’s difficult to have a sense of hope for a bright future, rather you’re just focused on worrying about food and living day by day,” Kim says.

Kim’s decision to defect was a calculated one. He knew there was a risk of being caught and sent back to North Korea. But the thought of living with hunger and depression while knowing that there could be something better out there was enough to compel him to leave.

“It was a decision that was built up over a decade, and as I was crossing the border, I didn’t know if I would be shot in the back or caught and sent to prison for the rest of my life.”

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