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“North Korea Guide” Ju Kyung Bae Informs Foreign Visitors to the DMZ of the Realities of North Korea

May 29, 2013

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The following article appeared on pages 46-47 of the December 2012 issue of NK Vision magazine.

Ju Kyung Bae in the studio
“Foreign visitors to the DMZ find what’s really going on in North Korea to be unbelievable the first time they hear about it. However, the more vivid testimony they hear the more interested they become, even though they find it hard to believe their ears. Some visitors even find themselves welling up with tears in sadness.”

Most foreign visitors to the DMZ react with the same disbelief that a country with such severe human rights abuses as North Korea could still exist in today’s world. However, after they hear the testimony of North Korean defectors many of them feel inclined to become an assistant of change in North Korea. Tens of thousands of foreigners come to see Panmunjom, the tunnels and other sights near the DMZ every year. “If only 10% of the foreigners who visit the DMZ realize what is going on in North Korea and actively support North Korean democratization, this could lead to ground-moving changes in the country says Ju Kyung Bae, a “North Korea guide” who works to inform foreign visitors about the hidden realities of North Korea.

While “North Korea guide” may be a somewhat unfamiliar job title to many, Ju says that his job is to educate North Korea “newbies” about what is happening in the country. “Most foreigners who visit the DMZ or Panmunjom have an interest in North Korea but don’t know much about it. They are surprised when listening to the vivid testimonies of defectors. There are many foreigners who cry along with the female defector while she tells her story. Visitors almost always express their interest in learning more about the country after the testimonies are over,” says Ju.

“After listening to the testimonies, many foreign visitors ask a lot of questions about the situation in North Korea. Some of them say they will take their interest in North Korea back home and help us fulfill our hope for change in the country. My sense of duty grows each time I hear their expressions of interest in learning more about what is happening in North Korea.”

An “Infatuation” with South Korean Radio Led to Defection

After entering the country in 2008, Ju started work earlier this year as a North Korean guide at the invitation of Kim Bong Gi, the director of the Panmunjom Travel Center. Director Kim hired Ju after realizing that no one could inform foreigners about the problems of North Korea better than someone who had lived there. Foreigners visiting the DMZ through the Panmunjom Travel Center learn about North Korea by visiting the North Korean Cultural Experience Hall, the Dora Mountain Observatory, among other sites. Ju has held separate discussion sessions to answer questions held by foreigners about North Korean issues like the country’s human rights record. He has his own reasons for having happily accepted Director Kim’s job offer. For 10 years he had cultivated his hopes for freedom in North Korea while listening to South Korean radio programs.

Ju’s father was a graduate of Kim Il Sung University and a high official who was a member of the National Defense Department and the State Planning Commission. An intellectual who held a great deal of interest in worldwide political changes, his father was later dragged off to the Yoduk Concentration Camp after displaying criticism toward the North Korean system. Ju’s family was deemed guilty by association and banished to spend the rest of their lives in a mountain village in North Hamkyung province. After spending 20 years in exile, he by chance began listening to South Korean radio and gained new hope. Facing every possible kind of discrimination and financial hardship daily, South Korean radio was a kind of liberation for him. He recalled that, “I worked in the valley as a farmer cultivating the land. I spent my youth in that place and became determined to defect while listening to South Korean radio. In the 1990’s North Korea was failing, but I told my friends, ’You should escape from this falling place if you get the opportunity.’ By chance I began listening to South Korean radio and felt a yearning for a free society. During the day I was oppressed by organized control but at night I would absorb myself in the free world of radio.”

South Korean Broadcasts Helped Me Understand the Miserable Reality of North Koreans

Ju says that he listened to the KBS One Nation broadcast a lot as well as Free Asia Radio and Voice of America broadcasts. “The thing I listened to the most was the Far East Broadcasting Company (극동방송, FEBC), and though I was loyal to the party, the radio taught me about how people have souls. It was only then that I understood that I had been living under the contradiction of ideology controlling every little thing I did. He also added that he realized that North Korea had distorted the histories of the two Koreas. Concluding that there was nothing more effective than radio for changing the way North Koreans think, Ju began contributing to Radio Free Chosun (자유조선방송) and FEBC broadcasts.

He recalls that, “While listening to the radio in North Korea I wondered if there were programs made by North Korean defectors. I thought that many citizens would sympathize with a program made by defectors.” Regarding the difficulties he sometimes had while listening to the radio he remembers that, “When I couldn’t hear the broadcast well I would hold the antenna in my mouth and listen. When listening to the broadcasts urging change in the North Korean political system I would get nervous and sweat.”

He recalls that listening to the broadcasts “wasn’t like listening to the radio, it was rather more like eating.” “I cannot forget the time I was so infatuated with the broadcasts that I felt it with my whole body. I came here and found out through a friend that defectors were making radio programs being broadcast to North Korea.” Ju says that he followed the advice of a friend to take part in the radio broadcasts, and is now a contributor to programs by Radio Free Chosun and the Far East Broadcasting Company.

“Honestly speaking, having to criticize North Korea is uncomfortable,” he confides. “However, I think it is meaningful that there are people who are trying to spread information about North Korean human rights problems. I want others who listen to this broadcast to understand the terrible reality of North Korea like I do.”

Overcoming Discrimination and Prejudice Requires a Sense of Self-Worth

Ju is now studying to become a professional counselor to help defectors recognize their own self-worth, an element he says is a must for successful settlement in South Korea. He has completed the Professional Counselor Education Course run by the North Korean Refugees Foundation, and recently received education on treating defectors with psychotherapy through a subsidiary organization of the Korean Catholic Federation. Drawing on his own experience, Ju believes it is important to help defectors find their own character and sense of self-worth in the first days of settling down in South Korea. “Only with a sense of self-worth equal to that of South Koreans can defectors dream, hope and have courage for their life in the South.”

He explains that a sense of self-worth can be a tool to overcome the prejudice and persecution defectors face in South Korean society. Ju is currently working as a “Healing Missionary” at the To-the-World Church (세계로교회) in Mapo-gu, Seoul. “Defectors go through a trial-and-error process while adjusting to life in South Korea. The fact that they risked their lives to come to South Korea means defectors are capable of doing anything. Nonetheless, their hearts require healing. The word ‘healing’ that’s on TV these days probably suits what I’m trying to say. Defectors are capable of settling down in South Korea without problems if they are able to maintain emotional stability.” Ju also emphasizes that material and emotional support is important, but defectors will not be able to settle down in South Korea if they don’t have a strong will. “There is social duty in South Korea to help heal defectors’ emotional scarring,” he says. “Defectors are sincere and diligent workers,” says Ju. “If they recover their confidence they can work with distinction in any place they choose. However, their own unhappiness with South Korean society often leads to more of cases of isolation than assimilation. It would be great if defectors could be themselves and have South Koreans welcome them with open minds and hearts.”

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