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Video: Kang Chol Hwan on the Politics of North Korea

August 19, 2013

At age nine, Kang Chol Hwan was sent with most of his family to a political prison camp in North Korea for an unspecified “crime” by his grandfather. He was released after 10 years and later fled the country, eventually reaching South Korea. Kang, perhaps best known as the co-author of “The Aquariums of Pyongyang”, is the head of the North Korea Strategy Center, and gave the talk below on April 12 as part of NKnet’s Spring 2012 speaker series in Seoul. The talk runs a little over an hour and during the remaining time Kang answers several questions from the audience. There are YouTube annotations that allow you to skip ahead to the next English translation, though that feature may not work on all portable devices. A list of contents is available immediately below the embedded video. You may also read a write-up and view photos of this event.

Video Timeline

1:02 Kang’s background and current work

2:57 Chinese pressure on North Korea to reform

– Chinese supreme leader Deng Xiaoping visited North Korea in 1985 and urged them to reform their government to insure survival in the world economy.

5:02 Kang’s hometown and defection story

– Kang witnessed the government stop handing out rations where he was living in at the time in 1994 in Daeheung County, South Hamkyung Province. He left North Korea in 1996.

7:45 Hwang Jang Yop’s defection in 1997 and subsequent revelations regarding the regime

– He expected that North Korea, which was suffering from a severe famine at the time, would collapse within about three years. Hwang defected to South Korea in order to prevent a military conflict and to help promote and advise safe reunification.

14:16 North Korea in the late 1990s

– North Korea was a complete “disaster.” There was famine and lack of order. Many defectors state that if these conditions continued, then North Korea would have collapsed.

21:58 Kim Jong Il, the Sunshine Policy, and the “Mosquito Net” policy

– Sunshine Policy initiated by South Korea to soften North Korea’s attitudes towards the South through economic assistance and interactions

– Mosquito Net policy: A policy initiated by North Korea designed to filter out capitalist ideas from the South and enable North Korea to accept only money, cash and other forms of aid.

26:09 Pro-North elements in South Korea

– Since the 1970s, North Korea worked to foster pro-North Korean networks on South Korean campuses. Kang encountered Hanchongryun (the Korean Federation of Student Councils) while at university in South Korea in the 1990s.

30:00 Anti-Americanism in South Korea

35:00 North Korean spy tactics

– North Koreans would use blackmail and other forms of coercion to make South Koreans and foreigners send aid to North Korea. North Korea has thousands of people working as spies and informants across the world.

38:45 North Korea and South Korean aid

– North Korea receives South Korean aid to secure regime stability. North Korea did not have to reform to survive because of all the aid that South Korea sent. North Korea was developing its nuclear program through South Korean money.

45:21 North Korea and the Lee Myung Bak government

– North Korean government decided not to negotiate with Lee Myung Bak’s government until a another progressive government took power. Kim Jong Il initiated this policy, making it difficult for North Korea’s government to interact with South Korea.

48:09 ROKS Cheonan Sinking 

54:03 Kim Jong Il travels to China

55:40 Kim Jong Il and Libya

Gadhafi visited Pyongyang and learned from Kim Jong Il’s personal security strategies.

58:05 Kang’s doubts about the Kim Jong Un regime

– Kim Jong Un did not put on an impressive display on his first appearance to the public during a military display. His young age, combined with the fact that many of his generals are much older and more experienced, made people skeptical of his ability to administer North Korea.

1:00:39 North Korea’s most recent missile test

– One of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile tests exploded in mid-air. The project was extremely expensive, and the money could have been used to feed millions of starving people. The people see this missile test as a wasteful act of the regime.

1:03:20 The future of the regime and the South Korean election

– As a new generation of leaders struggle for power in China, the future of North Korea remains a mystery as its strongest ally is wavering in its support of North Korea. China wants North Korea to “liberalize” in stages as opposed to suddenly transform.

1:04:14 QUESTION: Do you think the Sunshine Policy was part of a plan to keep the two Koreas separate?

The Sunshine Policy was unnecessary. It strengthened the North Korean regime, causing people to suffer under the regime for a longer period of time. In South Korea, it split the population into two political different ideological factions.

1:05:50 QUESTION: How did pro-North students in South Korea react when confronted with stories about North Korean political prison camps?

These South Korean students were not exposed to the entire truth about North Korean political camps and were too focused on the socialist aspects about North Korea. If they were exposed to the horrors of the regime, then they would have changed their opinion.

1:08:56 QUESTION: If the regime were to fall, would China turn its back on North Korea or turn it into a province?

China is mainly interested in the strategic location of North Korea. China is losing interest in North Korea as there is an ongoing power struggle and a change in leadership.

1:13:52 QUESTION: Is the current power transition happening smoothly, or behind the scenes is it less smooth?

The transition of power is different in Kim Jong Un’s case. Kim Jong Il fought for power while his son Kim Jong Un inherited it.

1:21:09 QUESTION: Considering the lack of trust between North Korea and Western nations, how do you see North Korea being brought back to the negotiating table?

A change in the leadership system could possibly allow North Korea back to the negotiating table. Instead of having one person hold all the power, a multi-lateral system, resembling China’s ruling party, could help North Korea back to negotiations.

1:25:13 QUESTION: Do you believe that North Korea’s lack of sincerity is due to the Clinton administration’s failure to keep their word in regards to the 1994 Agreed Framework?

North Korea was never sincere to begin with in regards to their nuclear program. The Clinton administration failed to keep its word but that was not the cause of North Korea’s lack of sincerity.

1:29:25 QUESTION: What can South Koreans do to prepare for unification?  What can they do to learn more about North Korea?

South Korea faces a greater problem than North Koreans. There are a lot more ignorant people in South Korea about the conditions in North Korea. In North Korea, however, a lot of people are exposed to South Korean culture through DVDs and other forms of media that portray South Korean life.

1:34:55 QUESTION: Does China have a contingency plan in case of a North Korean collapse?  If North Korea does collapse, would it be feasible for China to fill the power vacuum? What would happen if China reached the 38th parallel?

Chinese military intervention or takeover is not likely because China is still focusing on its own development.

1:38:25 QUESTION: After you escaped North Korea, what was the hardest thing to learn or relearn?

The difficulties that I had to adapt to were the cultural gap and the abundance of English in South Korea.

Photos and a summary of this event:

Week 2 Report: Kang Chol Hwan on the Politics of North Korea

More photos from this event and the speaker series:

Facebook photo album: North Korean Human Rights Speaker Series

Media coverage of this event:

N. Koreans won’t buy hype over leader
Korea Times
April 19, 2012

Kwang Chol-hwan on Developments in North Korea
NK News
April 24, 2012

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