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Recap: Kim Young Hwan’s Special Lecture on Secret Trip to North Korea, Ideological Conversion, Much More

June 12, 2013

A year ago at this time, activist and NKnet co-founder Kim Young Hwan and three of his colleagues were sitting in jail in China, having been arrested for their North Korean human rights work. The following is a summary of a special lecture Kim gave to a packed auditorium on September 12, 2012, at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul. He talks about his background and why he became involved in the democracy movement in South Korea (which led him to become an underground activist for North Korea), his later ideological conversion, and much more. The speech gained some attention in the media and brought protesters in front of our offices (in the pouring rain!) for his remarks about South Korea being ready to shed Clause 7 of its controversial National Security Law.

Video of this event is available here.

Special thanks to NKnet intern Nova Mercier for this write-up and In-Goo Kwak for event photography.

Kim Young Hwan during his special lecture at Yonsei University's GSIS in Seoul, September 12, 2012
Kim Young Hwan’s interest in socialism and North Korean Juche ideology was formed early on in life.

When Kim was in middle school, one of his teachers criticized the government. The teacher was arrested by the KCIA, the equivalent of the secret police, and was tortured, beaten, and fired from his job. Even within the confines of the home it was considered dangerous to speak out against the military dictatorship. Kim remembers a family gathering in which his father made a passing critical comment, and the room became silent and filled with fear.

Chun Doo Hwan had become president by Kim’s second year of high school in 1980. This was also the period in which the Gwangju Uprising occurred. Kim heard news about this protest via the Catholic Church he was attending, but the facts were never reported in the media. During these high school years, it was impossible to be involved in the democracy movement. In the 1980s even college students were having trouble getting involved. Regardless, Kim decided that he would try.

After entering Seoul National University in 1982, Kim attended underground meetings held by the anti-government student movement. Kim explains that during this time, despite rapid economic growth, government suppression was intensifying. In turn, student resistance was growing stronger. For Kim and many others involved in the movement, Marxism provided the principles, strategies and tactics to combat brutal suppression.

Kim Young Hwan's special lecture at Yonsei University's GSIS in Seoul, September 12, 2012
However, Kim was also seeking an ideology that would apply to the unique situation in Korea. This is when he discovered the Juche ideology – the official state ideology of North Korea. In 1986, Kim was arrested by South Korean authorities and spent two years in prison. After his release he went on to form the underground Anti-Imperialist Youth League (반제청년동), which later developed into the National Democratic Revolutionary Party (민족민주혁명당, or 민혁당).

An invitation to visit North Korea appeared in 1991. In May of that year Kim travelled to the North via a submarine, and spent two weeks in Pyongyang during which he met with Kim Il Sung. Throughout these meetings, the North Korean leader spoke at length about his experiences as a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese during the 1930s. Disappointed at the lack of any discussion regarding future strategy or policy, Kim realized that Kim Il Sung’s mindset was ”fossilized in the 1930s.”

However what was most striking to Kim was that the North Korean leader appeared to possess little knowledge of his own ideology, an ideology that every citizen of the country was required to learn intimately. Kim had been eager to discuss Juche in depth, but Kim Il Sung spoke only of national Communism rather than of the underlying philosophy behind it.

Kim Young Hwan's special lecture at Yonsei University's GSIS in Seoul, September 12, 2012
Kim was also able to visit several scholars during his visit to North Korea. When basic concepts like ”common sense” were brought up, the discussion flowed easily. Yet more controversial topics were met with virtual silence. At this point, Kim realized there was no intellectual freedom in the North. While South Korea was restrictive, discussions were still permitted. In the North, the official state version of Juche was never to be questioned.

In terms of economic, political and social equality, Kim had always believed that the citizens of the North were better off. These illusions were also shattered during his time in North Korea. While riding in a ministerial Mercedes in Pyongyang, the car ignored all traffic lights and the driver spoke rudely to other motorists. On a trip to the Juche tower, Kim’s travelling companion accidentally entered a restricted area. Unaware of who the visitor was, a nearby guard yelled at and insulted him. These two events revealed to Kim the way in which ordinary citizens were treated.

The collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the 1990s was a heavy blow to Kim. His firmly held beliefs regarding socialism were directly challenged. This ideological shock was further deepened by the testimonies from North Korean defectors arriving in the South. Reports of political prison camps, control and surveillance against citizens, and of severe punishment and torture of ordinary people were impossible to ignore.

Kim Young Hwan during his special lecture at Yonsei University's GSIS in Seoul, September 12, 2012
Kim’s primary drive for entering the democracy movement in the South was anger against the regime, and solidarity with the weakest members of society. Yet even the worst-off citizens in South Korea were receiving better treatment than ordinary North Koreans. Kim realized he could not call himself a revolutionary if he neglected the plight of these people. From this point onwards, Kim began to dedicate himself to the human rights movement.

While carrying out related activities in China, Kim was arrested by the Chinese secret police. During his four months in prison he was tortured. Chinese interrogators informed him that many North Koreans would have died due to his activities, and even admitted that the torture they received was bound to have been far worse. Kim explains that two or three out of every 10 political prisoners in the North will either be tortured to death or will commit suicide.

Students sign in before the lecture

Summary of Q and A Period

What was the nature of the torture you received in China?

The main method used was electric shock by a 40-50cm long rod. The fear of the shock when you see the rod coming towards you is also painful in and of itself. I was beaten and suffered through six days of sleep deprivation. I have since heard that sleep deprivation for this length of time can be life threatening.

What are your thoughts in regards to abolishing South Korea’s National Security Law?

In college I read many cases involving this law. There are two types of punishment. The first is for those who have a connection with North Korea, like spies, for instance. The second type involves the so-called “7th clause.” This is punishment for those who praise North Korea. It appears there have been many arbitrary judgments made under this clause. For example, in the 1960s a person was punished for saying the Soviet Union’s satellite technology was better than that of the United States. However, punishments like this don’t occur these days. While there are still those who support North Korea, if caught they are lightly punished, or not at all. The mentality of South Koreans has changed. I don’t think it poses a great threat to citizens if the “7th clause” is gotten rid of. Even if people went into downtown Seoul yelling “Long Live Kim Jong Il” it would only isolate them from the general public. When pro-North Korean factions are underground they prosper. When they go public, they often become isolated.

Presumably the end goal of your human rights activities is to see unification. How do you envision unification?

The most important thing would be ensuring the autonomy and dignity of the North Korean people. In the case of unification between West and East Germany, those in the East felt like second-class citizens and those in the West felt as if they were paying too much in taxes. The gap between the two Koreas is far larger. The ensuing political crisis would be secondary to the likely economic problems. Forming a sense of community between the two Koreas would have to be done slowly and gradually.

Kim Young Hwan listens to a question during Q&A, September 12, 2012

North Koreans have mentioned a federal option before. What’s your opinion on this?

This is a not a sincere proposal from North Korea. They do not want to unify under this system. They just use this as a political tool. However, I think some kind of federal state is inevitable if unification does occur. The current regime would find it impossible to reunify with the South. A federal system would only be possible if North Korea undergoes regime change.

In 1991 you were the chairman of the National Democratic Revolutionary Party. One of your fellow party members at that time, Lee Seok Ki (who is now a National Assemblyman), recently said that it was worse to be pro-United States than pro-North Korea. What is your opinion?

It is important to understand the power of ideology. It has been revealed that during the Cold War there were many well-educated, well-paid people working for the Soviets in the governments of both the United States and the United Kingdom. For these people the Soviet Union was seen as a symbol of the Communist movement. Being pro-North Korea is the same. It is a political stance in combination with an ideology. While I criticize all-out support for the United States, it is not backed by an ideology. This is why being pro-North Korea is dangerous for South Korea.

Presidential hopeful Ahn Cheol Soo said in an interview that there are no Communists in South Korea anymore. Is this true?

Perhaps Ahn Cheol Soo doesn’t read newspapers. If he did he would know that there have been many cases of North Korean spies being convicted.

Kim Young Hwan's special lecture at Yonsei University's GSIS in Seoul, September 12, 2012

What are your thoughts on the Sunshine Policy?

It is a matter of strategies or tactics. If it’s included in a range of options, it’s good. On its own, it is insufficient. We need a diverse approach when dealing with North Korea. We should provide cultural content to North Korean citizens, like dramas and movies. We should also be promoting ideas like human rights and political freedom. We should send engineers and personnel to the Kaesong industrial complex.

Why does the issue of North Korean human rights not receive much attention?

Many teachers and parents in South Korea do not convey the desperateness of the regime to children. Many social science teachers even have a friendly attitude toward the North. This needs to change. Human rights violations should be discussed. Attitudes need to change. The whole of North Korea is like Auschwitz. If we don’t act, our descendants and North Koreans after liberation will ask us why we did nothing. Regardless of whether we ignore the reality knowingly or unintentionally, we remain perpetrators. By ignoring the problem we are complying with North Korea. It is our duty to spread the news of North Korean human rights violations in order that we do not become accomplices.

Related Content:

Video of the event

Daily NK article: Kim: We’re Strong Enough for End of Article 7

NK News article: Kim Young-hwan: From Juche Evangelist to North Korean Human Rights Activist

More about Kim Young Hwan on this website

More photos of this event on our Facebook page

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