Interview: Kim Young Hwan Reflects on His Detention in China, His Past & Present Activism, and the Future of North Korea
January 18, 2013
The following is an interview with Kim Young Hwan that appeared on pages 14-19 in the September 2012 issue of NK Vision magazine. Translation courtesy of NKnet volunteer Robert Lauler.
“A human rights movement first and foremost requires activists to go as close as possible to people suffering from human rights abuses and raise their awareness of the concept of human rights.”
“Solid guarantees for agriculture, small-scale commerce, industry and the self-employed. When these have been in place for at least three years without changes then I think we can say that the country has begun real reforms.”
Kim Young Hwan, a.k.a. “Steel” has returned. Arrested by the Chinese Ministry of State Security while conducting North Korean human rights activities, Kim spent almost 114 days in a Chinese jail where he was subject to torture by electric shocks. His confinement and torture was a shock to many people all the more because Kim had at one time been the ideological and organizational leader of the South Korean leftist movement in the 1980s and 1990s, even to the extent of being referred to as the “godfather of the Juche Ideology Faction” (주사파의 대부) in the past. While Kim was at one time involved in spreading the Juche ideology (주체 사상) in South Korea on behalf of North Korea, he has since reflected on his activities in the past and feels regret over their results. This latest incident shows that, just like in the past, Kim continues to find himself in dangerous situations.
Kim’s past dream of overthrowing the South Korean government and constructing a communist society has now been replaced by his desire to advance the human rights of North Koreans and turn North Korea’s feudalistic one-man dictatorship into a liberal democratic society. NK Vision sat down with this former “godfather” of the Juche Faction turned leading advocate for North Korean democracy who now works as head researcher at NKnet. In the following interview, two young activists following in Kim’s footsteps in the North Korean human rights and democracy movement asked Kim about his thoughts on the path North Korea could take to become a democracy.
Shin Bo Ra, director of the Youth Opening the Future Forum (미래를여는청년포럼): The fact that you were imprisoned in China for conducting North Korean human rights activities was in itself extremely shocking, but I cannot understand why China would torture a South Korean North Korean human rights activist. The Chinese surely knew that it would cause an international uproar. I suspect you have thought a lot about this issue.
Kim Young Hwan, head researcher at the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights: Well, I think that there are a number of complex elements involved here. First of all, the Chinese police have become accustomed to torturing suspects in their custody and this may have led to their irrational decision. It may have also been intentional; they knew who I was, but yet they subjected me to torture. While I’m not certain if my captors cooperated with the (Chinese) central government, I believe that in any the case the central government must take responsibility for what occurred. I also believe there was some degree of cooperation with or influence from North Korea. This is because it seems like our arrest occurred after North Korea provided the Chinese with information.
Shin Bo Ra: Why did North Korea get involved in your arrest?
Kim Young Hwan: I think the North Koreans planned to either destroy or weaken our organization because they believed we were conducting activities against the regime.
Mun Dong Hee, director of Students Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (Young NK, 북한인권학생연대): But wouldn’t the Chinese also have felt that North Korean human rights activities conducted within their borders would endanger their national security?
Kim Young Hwan: You could view it that way. I have heard some people saying that the very fact we have been conducting dedicated but clandestine activities inside China could be construed as being a threat to the country, even though those activities have never been aimed at the Chinese state. However, one of the general principles of modern society is the freedom of association, and a state has no right to restrict this freedom unless the organization in question is criminal in nature or conducts terrorism. I think that our recent imprisonment and torture goes against the principles of democracy because we were not involved in any anti-state activities against China.
Shin Bo Ra: I think when many university students saw the news about what happened to you they asked themselves why the North Korean human rights campaign needed to be conducted in China. Many of them have asked why such activities cannot be done sufficiently in South Korea.
Kim Young Hwan: A human rights movement first and foremost requires activists to go as close as possible to people suffering from human rights abuses and raise their awareness of the concept of human rights. Activists must also be able to accurately grasp the situation on the ground and help these people find a specific and realistic way to improve their human rights situation. However, we are unable to conduct such activities inside North Korea. Russia and China are the two closest places activists can operate in, but the Russian border with North Korea is small and there is little exchange between the two countries. However, the Chinese-North Korean border allows North Koreans to cross between the two countries relatively freely. 99 percent of North Koreans traveling legally and illegally in and out of their country go through China, making it the only real area of exchange between North Korea and the outside world.
Mun Dong Hee: As you have pointed out, activists such as yourself have operated in China because of its border with North Korea. However, your arrest along with other activists has made it difficult for North Korean human rights activities to continue in China. What are your future plans for the human rights movement?
Kim Young Hwan: Since I am now unable to travel to China I will probably continue my work in South Korea. I could support those who are able to work in China. I will also further develop the work I have been doing in South Korea. I will have to think more about any new areas I could focus on in the future.
Shin Bo Ra: The news surrounding your arrest has been largely focused on the torture you received in China, and there are worries that the torture issue may be somewhat “diluting” the issue of North Korean human rights. What are your thoughts on that?
Kim Young Hwan: I think that the torture issue itself is serious enough that we must devote time to discussing it before moving on. I also think that the North Korean human rights issue will come to the fore again in two or three months. I don’t think you should worry about that too much.
Shin Bo Ra: The Chinese government has until now has consistently denied the torture you suffered. How do you plan to deal with this situation?
Kim Young Hwan: We anticipated that the Chinese government would react that way. The South Korean government and the media have generally recognized that I have been speaking the truth, so I don’t think that demanding an apology and steps to make sure it never happens again will be too difficult. As we’ve all witnessed, the Chinese government has been unable to actively mount a counter-attack against what I have said. They have been placed in a difficult situation because it is clear that torture did take place. It seems to me they are just trying to defend themselves in the best way possible. The reason I have made an issue of the torture we endured was not to push the Chinese government into a corner and knock them out, so to speak, but to protect the values central to modern human rights and, ultimately, help to improve the human rights situation in China. Consequently, I don’t believe there is any need to be disappointed with how the Chinese government has reacted to what I’ve said.
Mun Dong Hee: It seems that as your 114-day imprisonment and torture experience were reported in the news, more and more South Koreans became aware of the movement for North Korean human rights. I’ve heard friends around me say that they’ve come to realize that the North Korean human rights movement will be instrumental for changing the direction of North Korean history. Have you personally felt any changes in how people view the movement after being expelled from China?
Kim Young Hwan: I feel that the atmosphere surrounding the movement has changed considerably. Many people have become interested in North Korean human rights through their family, colleagues and friends, and I have heard that interest toward the North Korean human rights movement has even increased among former activists with center-left political leanings. I think this is a major change. In many ways, the North Korean human rights movement should have been conducted with more vigor from within leftist groups in the country, but most of them have maintained silence on the issue. However, I am hopeful that more and more leftists will begin participating in the North Korean human rights movement.
Shin Bo Ra: Before joining the North Korean democracy movement you were called the “grandfather” of the Juche Ideology Faction. Frankly speaking, there are many college students nowadays who have a hard time understanding how you ended up becoming a pioneer in the campaign for North Korean democracy from such beginnings. Could you please talk about how you became interested in North Korea and the Juche ideology during your college years?
Kim Young Hwan: During the 1980s, communists linked with China and the Soviet Union strongly felt that they had to put the basic principles of the international communist movement into practice. As a result, communist movements then did not have much interest in the North Korea issue. There was also a strong tendency to prohibit any discussion on North Korea because of the social atmosphere at the time. Most people had little knowledge of North Korea and didn’t talk about it because they were afraid of coming under attack from the state. In my case, I knew we had to cooperate with other communists in accordance with the principles of international communist cooperation, but at the time the Soviet communist party showed little direct interest in students movements in the third world, and in China the communist party was only interested in their own reform process and had no interest in other countries.
As a result, I and others around me saw the Korean Workers’ Party (북한 노동당) as the only real partner we could cooperate with. We also felt an ethnic oneness with North Korea and believed that it would be easy to cooperate with them. We had also felt some disappointment with the limits of existing socialist theories, so when we came across the Juche philosophy while searching for something new we found it to be quite attractive, philosophically speaking. There was a particularly strong nationalistic temperament among members of the student movements at the time, and I think my own nationalistic feelings stoked my interest in North Korea and the Juche philosophy.
Mun Dong Hee: I am interested to hear how you viewed Kim Il Sung during the period when the spread of the Juche ideology in South Korea was at its peak. The increase in followers of the Juche ideology also led to an increase in those who began showing blind reverence (추종주의) to Kim Il Sung. As the person at the center of the spread of the Juche ideology, what were your feelings about Kim Il Sung?
Kim Young Hwan: I respected him a lot for his participation in the fight against the Japanese colonialists and the large role he played in creating the Juche ideology, even if in reality he didn’t actually create it. However, I did not like the idea of blind reverence to North Korea. As a matter of fact, I came to the conclusion in mid-1986, right before I was arrested, that the exponential growth of the Juche faction had led to an atmosphere among South Korean activists of blind reverence toward North Korea, and I had planned to write an article about how to overcome this issue. I was arrested before I could write the article, however. After I was released from prison I found that the atmosphere had changed so much it would have been difficult to publish the article. If I had written such an article at that time, I would have run the risk of being branded as a traitor.
Shin Bo Ra: When Kim Il Sung died in 1994 a number of underground groups set up places to pay respects to the North Korean leader, and there were a considerable number of cases where groups even cried in front of portraits of Kim Il Sung. How did you feel when Kim Il Sung died?
Kim Young Hwan: I was hiking with friends the day that Kim Il Sung’s death was announced. A man with a radio in front of us near the top of Kwanak Mountain told us about his death. The people I was hiking with at the time were not members of the National Democratic Revolutionary Party (NDRP, 민혁당), but were those who had moved toward the political left-of-center after participating in the Juche faction. I felt comfortable around them. If I had been hiking with NDRP members, I would have had to be cautious about how I reacted to the news, but I didn’t have to worry about that because of the people I was with.
I didn’t feel a sense of sadness or a sense of happiness when I heard the news, just a feeling of mixed emotions. These mixed emotions included my own personal connection with Kim Il Sung, positive and negative thoughts about the man, worries about the rough times the Korean Peninsula would face in the future, and also what would happen to the North-South Summit meeting that was set to take place at the time.
The people I was hiking with then thought that I had already changed my thinking a lot, and probably couldn’t imagine that I was involved in an organization like the NDRP. As a result, they had no reason to find it strange that I didn’t physically express my sadness over the news and that I only spoke of the death as unfortunate in light of the planned North-South summit meeting.
At the Central Committee meeting of the NDRP several days later, an official memorial service was held for Kim Il Sung. Under an atmosphere of deep mourning we all expressed our profound sorrow over his death.
Mun Dong Hee: We are aware that you met with Kim Il Sung after entering North Korea by semi-submersible (반잠수정). Were you scared when you visited the country?
Kim Young Hwan: Due to the number of experiences where I have found myself in dangerous situations, I can’t say I was scared while visiting the country. I would be lying, however, if I said I wasn’t nervous. I was especially nervous when I was heading out to sea near Ganghwa Island (강화도) in order to get on the submersible. The South Korean military was patrolling the coastline and searchlights were scanning this way and that, and I remember thinking that if something goes wrong I could die right then and there.
Shin Bo Ra: Fifteen years have passed since you began the campaign for North Korean democracy. What do you think have been the successes of the campaign so far?
Kim Young Hwan: When we started this movement most people seemed to be unable to understand what exactly we were trying to campaign for. Apart from gaining support for our ideas, we also had trouble explaining the conceptual aspects of the campaign. Moreover, the uniqueness of our standpoint at the time made a lot of people question the genuineness of our campaign. In contrast to that time, there are now a lot of people interested in the campaign for North Korean democracy and our support base has widened considerably. However, this interest has yet to be organized in a systematic way and I believe there needs to be more efforts to resolve this.
Mun Dong Hee: There has been relentless controversy over the pro-North faction (종북파) in South Korea recently. No one can deny that your role as the “grandfather” of the Juche faction contributed to some extent to the increase in North Korea sympathizers. I think this would give you a unique view of those colleagues of yours who still sympathize with the North. Please tell us what you would like to say to those people.
Kim Young Hwan: While North Korea has never said anything officially about it, even during the early 1980s the Juche ideology was not just about pursuing something blindly. Unofficially, there have been instances where the topic has come up, like when a young Kim Il Sung made the following statement: “Don’t follow something without using your head.” If followers of the Juche ideology understood this, then they would realize that the act of blindly paying reverence to North Korea or Kim Jong Il would be in conflict with the ideology itself.
In contrast to 20 years ago, we are now able obtain a wide-range of information about North Korea, and I think in this very different environment it is very hard to understand those who blindly follow the North Korean regime.
I sincerely hope that those people in question can build up the courage to reflect on themselves and rationally evaluate whether the road they’ve taken is the right one.
Shin Bo Ra: I think the person you contrasted deeply with while you were imprisoned in China was Lee Seok Ki, the Unified Progressive Party (통합진보당) assemblyman. While you were both involved in the NDRP in the past, one was arrested by the Chinese police for North Korean human rights work and suffered torture, while the other used illegal means to become a member of the National Assembly.
Kim Young Hwan: In the past, North Korea placed importance on inserting its operatives into the government. During my time, they emphasized doing that, and in the early 1990s the North Koreans actively supported their operatives entering the government. Later, they suggested that a legal political party should be established, and even placed their support behind a candidate for election. In any case, the North Koreans have placed a lot of emphasis on putting their people in the government. I think they believe that without having operatives in the government they won’t be able to have any influence on South Korean society.
Mun Dong Hee: The recent trip to China by the vice-president of the National Defense Commission, Jang Sung Taek (국방위원회 부위원장 장성택), and announcement of the June 28 plan (6.28 방침) have led to analysts asking whether or not North Korea is heading towards reform. Analysts have also said that Kim Jong Un’s past experience abroad will lead him to choose a different path from Kim Jong Il. What do you think about this?
Kim Young Hwan: I believe there is a large possibility that North Korea will begin reforms because North Korean leaders have no choice in the matter. I think there is an 80 percent or more chance that the country will conduct reforms, but the issue is that after North Korea adopts such policies it is highly likely that the country will fall into political or economic confusion. I feel a little unsure whether the country could overcome such issues. As the absolute leader of the country, Kim Jong Un will surely feel the desire to pull back reforms whenever confusion sets in, and I’m unsure whether he will be able to ignore such a desire and push forward with reforms. I also believe that even if he is able to overcome such desires and push forward with reforms, it will not be easy for him to continue such policies for the long-term.
Mun Dong Hee: Even if Kim Jong Un wanted reforms, I think he would have to deal with criticism from party cadres (간부들).
Kim Young Hwan: They probably would have a hard time showing opposition to anything in a system like North Korea’s. If Kim Jong Un says he is going to do something then I think the cadres will be too scared to speak up with any force. They know through years and years of experience that if they are caught criticizing the leader they will end up being sent to the camps or worse. I don’t anticipate any of them taking the step of directly criticizing Kim Jong Un’s decisions.
Shin Bo Ra: I’m interested to hear from you what exactly real opening and reforms in North Korea refers to.
Kim Young Hwan: Solid guarantees for agriculture, small-scale commerce, industry and the self-employed. When these have been in place for at least three years without changes then I think we can say that the country has begun real reforms.
Mun Dong Hee Do reforms refer to both political and economic reforms?
Kim Young Hwan: Reforming politically is tremendously difficult. China included political reforms in its overall reform process, but this was possible because the country’s leaders had confidence in their authority. However, North Korean leaders are already very worried about the possible threat posed by economic reforms, and I think that there is a low possibility they would add political reforms to the list. Rather, there is a higher possibility that North Korea could strengthen its one-man authoritarian system. They would do this to protect the regime due to fears that reform policies could lead to destruction of their system.
Shin Bo Ra: Kim Jong Un is only in his late 20s, and it is difficult to imagine how such a young person can be at the head of a country. It is questionable how much leadership education he has received or whether he will be able to maintain the country’s one-man dictatorship.
Kim Young Hwan: Leadership in North Korea is unconditional and based on absolute obedience, so it may take around 10 to 15 stable years for Kim Jong Un’s leadership to become fully established. However, I don’t think that he will be able to last for 10-15 years under current conditions. That being said, absolute obedience to the dictator has been thoroughly established through various fear devices and will continue regardless of the North Korean people’s desires.
Shin Bo Ra: Then what direction should the North Korean human rights and North Korean democracy movement be heading towards in the Kim Jong Un era?
Kim Young Hwan: I don’t think that the North Korean democracy movement in the Kim Jong Un era will need to be much different than during his father’s rule. I think that the basic direction should stay the same because there have been no fundamental changes in the regime itself. I would say, however, that if and when Kim Jong Un makes solid moves toward reform, the movement should respond in a flexible and prudent manner. I don’t think that continuing the direction of the movement would be appropriate if the North Korean regime moves toward real reforms. If real changes do occur, I believe there is a need to adapt the movement appropriately to deal with possible changes.
Mun Dong Hee: What words of wisdom do you have for the young people today as a passionate 386-generation activist during the 1980s?
Kim Young Hwan: During the 1980s it was easy to take part in the democracy movement because of the clear existence of a dictatorship [in South Korea], but I think that drastic changes in the world now makes it difficult for students to engage passionately in social issues. I think I understand why young people are not really involved in social issues. The fact of the matter is that even if they do stand up for something it rarely leads to changes. However, the North Korea issue is different. It can make little difference if young people take sides on South Korean social issues, but their involvement in the issue of North Korea can lead to enormous changes. People in North Korea still survive under slave-like conditions, and I think it a worthwhile endeavor for young people to think about the difficult problems faced by North Koreans and take action to solve them.
I believe that nurturing the ability to sympathize with our North Korean compatriots, who suffer from some of the most difficult pain on earth, is extremely important for being a fellow human being and a democratic citizen. As a result, I think that young people ignoring the problem because it cannot be seen or because it doesn’t directly concern them is not good for North Korea, our universal values or ourselves. I believe that contributing in any way to North Korean human rights and democracy is the right attitude for the young people of today to have.
Shin Bo Ra: Lastly, politics in South Korea will soon be heating up ahead of the presidential election in December, and I think that the next government’s policy toward North Korea will be very important for the improvement of North Korean human rights and democracy. I was hoping you could give us some words on the presidential candidates and the direction of North Korea policy.
Kim Young Hwan: While it’s hard for me to say exactly who should become president, I hope that the next president will be someone who has thought a lot about democracy in North Korea. However, because the North Korea issue requires a highly level of resourcefulness, I think that the next president will not be able to stick to a singular strategy or set of tactics.
Consequently, I hope that the next president is knowledgeable and cares a lot about the North Korea issue. He or she will need to have a lot of strategies and tactics in mind, and South Koreans will need to help the president make independent policy decisions. I think that it would not be right for the president to excessively impose a particular perspective or policy or cling to a particular policy direction. However, I trust that because civilians have their own role to play – the government and the civil sector, each has a role – and I believe they will be able to continue their work and get on with the government.
Tags: China/PRC, economic reform, human rights, Jang Sung Taek, Juche Ideology, Kim Young Hwan, Korean Workers' Party, Lee Seok Ki, National Democratic Revolutionary Party, policy, torture
Filed under: *Interviews, No. 39 - Sep 2012