Magazine | July 11, 2016, Issue

He Calls Himself ‘Free Man’

Meet Jung Gwang-il, a North Korean defector who has found his life's work

Jung Gwang-il does something unusual for a living: He sends information via helicopter drones into North Korea. The drones bear USB sticks and SD cards, which contain South Korean television shows, American movies, and more. This “more” includes videos of North Korean defectors, telling people back home what the outside world is like.

Jung himself is a defector. He survived the gulag and escaped North Korea in 2003. In May, he was a speaker at the Oslo Freedom Forum, where I sat down with him. I will relate his story in brief — a story full of horror, but leavened with majesty.

He was born in China in 1963. His grandparents had immigrated there from Korea in the 1930s. During Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Jung’s father, a professor, was hauled away. The entire family suffered. Jung’s mother took them to North Korea in 1969.

“This might seem crazy,” says Jung, “but when I arrived in 1969, North Korea seemed like a heaven, compared with China. In China, you could not eat three meals a day. In North Korea, you could.” The Jung family believed in Communism. That included Gwang-il. And he tells me, “My younger brother is still in North Korea, and he still believes in Communism.”

Gwang-il, however, had some doubts in the 1990s. The country was dying of starvation. “Every morning when I went to work, I saw ten, sometimes twenty new bodies piled up, most of them children who had lived on the streets. City officials took them away like bags of trash.” This made Jung wonder about what the regime had taught him: Were North Koreans really lucky to have the Kim family and the Communist party ruling over them?

He spent ten years in the military. Then he worked for a trading company — a state company, of course, the only kind there is in North Korea. He did well. In one year, 1997, he brought in $700,000 for the regime. He was a good and productive citizen.

Then, in 1999, agents of the State Security Department came in the middle of the night and hauled him off. Jung was bewildered. There had to be some mistake. It transpired that one of his employees had accused him of being a spy for South Korea. Others conspired along with the main accuser. For Jung, there ensued ten months of torture.

I will say relatively little about this. They put him in a torture position known as “pigeon.” He thought he would die, and he wanted to die. He wanted to kill himself, but this was impossible, under the eye of the SSD. He tried a hunger strike. They force-fed him. His weight dropped from 165 pounds to 80. Finally, unable to bear more torture, he confessed (falsely).

They put him in a truck and drove him to the gulag — to Camp No. 15, known as “Yodok.” This one is for political prisoners, or, in the parlance of the regime, “enemies of the state.” It has about 50,000 inmates. There are multiple zones, including a punishment area, a killing area, and a “re-revolutionizing” area. When Jung got there, the sign at the gate read, “Let’s Sacrifice Our Lives to Protect the Revolutionary Leadership of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.”

“The day I arrived,” says Jung, “I saw the prisoners, and you would not have called them human beings, because they did not look like human beings. They had no flesh. They were walking skeletons, forced to work 16 hours a day. They were treated not like human beings, but like animals.”

I will write just one paragraph about Jung’s years in the camp. If you wanted to skip it, that would be perfectly understandable.

In the winter, the prisoners were made to get wood from the mountain. Many were injured or killed, as the trees fell or the logs rolled down the mountain. Other prisoners would not pause to bury the dead. It would have taken too much energy in the frozen ground. They carried the bodies back to a shed next to a latrine. At night, when you went to the latrine, you could hear moaning from the shed — some weren’t dead yet. By the spring, they were all dead, of course. The bodies had formed a great gelatinous mass. And Jung and the others would have to break it apart, with shovels, and bury it.

There was kindness in the camp — from certain guards and SSD agents, one of whom told Jung that he had to survive. “You have two children. If you died under the false charge of being a spy, they would have no future in North Korea. Think of them. You have to keep your hopes up and live for them.”

In 2003, after three years in the camp, Jung was released. Why? Because his former employee and the others who had conspired against him were found to have committed crimes themselves. This led officials to believe in Jung’s innocence. Something else weighed in his favor: In that trading company, he had done well for the regime.

Before Jung left the camp, they made him sign a vow of secrecy: He was never to talk about what he had seen and experienced. When he went home, there was no home. They had given his house to another family. And they had made his wife divorce him. Jung figured, “There’s nothing left for me in this country. I cannot function here.”

So, he rested for a week and a half — then swam the Tumen River into China. From there, he went to Vietnam, and then Cambodia, and then Thailand, and finally to South Korea, his new home. His daughters joined him there. One of them is now married, with a child.

Jung looks good: a youngish grandfather — 53 — with a proud head of hair. As we sit together, he laughs frequently. Sometimes the laughter is grim and gallows-like. Other times it is lighthearted. I ask him whether he suffers physical effects from his treatment. Yes. But more important are the mental effects. “I still have nightmares. I had nightmares last night, here in Norway.”

When he made it to South Korea, he said to hell with the vow of secrecy he had signed. He vowed to dedicate his life to telling the world about North Korea, and in particular its gulag. He vowed to do whatever he could for his former countrymen, especially the gulag prisoners. He has testified before the European Union, the U.S. Congress, and the United Nations.

And he adopted a name for his e-mail address — and his bank account and his Twitter account and anything else requiring a handle. That name is jauin, which means “free man.”

In 2012, he founded an organization called “No Chain.” Jung thinks of North Korea as a giant prison camp, with a chain around it. He endeavors to break this chain. His group is funded by private donors, and operates on a shoestring. But Jung and his partners are making inroads. They send their storage devices — USB sticks, SD cards — into North Korea via their drones. There are contacts on the inside, waiting for the drones.

But what can North Koreans do with the storage devices? They can insert them into Notels, which are Chinese-made media players available on the black market. There are also newer, smaller players, which take a micro–SD card. These little cards are handy because they are easy to hide, or, if necessary, swallow.

I ask Jung, “Do North Koreans know they live in the worst place on earth? Do they know how abnormal, how psychotic and wretched their lives are?” In general they do not, he says. They have long been deprived of information. Not only are they not allowed to travel abroad, they cannot travel within the country, except with state permission. And they are propagandized — brainwashed — out of the womb.

“Before they eat something, children are told to thank the Leader for giving them the food. When I got to South Korea, I was amazed to see Christians thanking their heavenly father, in much the same way I observed in North Korea.”

When you see and listen to Jung Gwang-il, you can tell that he’s about a business that he is compelled to do. “Even after I resettled in South Korea,” he says, “I could not forget the images of the fellow inmates I left behind. I can never forget the looks they gave me when I walked out of the camp.”

I ask whether he has any survivor’s guilt, however unreasonable. “Of course I do. When I was in Yodok, I was lucky enough to become a supervisor of a work group. In this position, I had to punish people, because that’s what I was ordered to do. If I did not punish them, I would be punished myself. And because of my actions, some people didn’t get enough food, and they ended up dying, and when I think about those prisoners, I’m so sorry. I feel guilty, but I had no choice.”

Even before he got to the camp, as you know — when he was being tortured by State Security agents and made to confess — he wanted to kill himself, and would have if he could. Today, is he glad that he did not kill himself? Yes, very. “I’m glad to be alive, lucky to be alive, so that I can do what I’m doing.”

The North Korean government is furious with him, of course, and doing all they can to discredit him: telling CNN, for example, that Jung is an impostor who was never in the camp and stole someone else’s identity. Jung laughs at this, more determined than ever to fight the regime.

He wishes he could thank, publicly, the SSD agent who showed compassion to him in the camp. He cannot, however, because that would land the agent in trouble. To name the agent would be to imperil him. But perhaps Jung will be able to thank him as he wishes someday.

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