Defections Underscore Hopelessness of Young N.Koreans

  • By Chosun Ilbo Columnist Ahn Yong-hyun

    June 21, 2019 12:40

    Recently I exchanged messages via WeChat with a Chinese friend who lives in Pyongyang. Unlike ordinary North Koreans, my friend can use a SIM card that allows connectivity with foreign Internet service providers, which made it possible to communicate via social media. Even North Koreans can make phone calls to family members in South Korea if they use Chinese mobile phones near the Chinese border, which means almost all of the 32,700 North Korean defectors in South Korea are able to communicate with their families in the North.

    According to accounts, relatives of defectors are no longer persecuted in North Korea. There are even rumors that they are preferred marriage partners because of the money they receive from their defector relatives. Each defector sends W3-8 million a year to their relatives up North (US$1=W1,162). That is a lot of money for a North Korean, enough to finance a new business and more than enough to make ends meet. One North Korean defector said, "My father is a mid-level government official and he told me to defect [to South Korea] and settle down first."

    A huge gap now exists between people of Pyongyang and those living in rural areas and between the old and new generation. The 2.5 million Pyongyang residents still receive food rations and supplies from the state, but the rest have to fend for themselves. Many sell goods in open-air markets to eke out a living. Older North Koreans who are used to state rations are reluctant to acknowledge the failure of the socialist system. But Oh Chong-song, the North Korean soldier who made a daring defection to South Korea through the border truce village of Panmunjom in 2017, said it is "impossible" to control the thoughts of the younger generation. Oh said he started watching South Korean dramas and listening to K-pop at a young age and always dreamed of escaping the North.

    One of the four North Koreans who defected aboard a fishing boat last weekend asked a South Korean he ran into in the port city of Samcheok, Gangwon Province to lend him a mobile phone so he could talk to his aunt who lives in Seoul. He was carrying a piece of paper with her phone number. The National Intelligence Service said another young man was at risk of punishment for watching a South Korean movie. The latest defection symbolizes the hopelessness felt by young North Koreans.

    Only two to three percent of North Korean defectors make the harrowing journey by sea because failure means death. But the four men made the dangerous 800 km journey aboard a wooden fishing boat. While North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and 10 percent of North Korea's privileged live in Pyongyang shielded by nuclear bombs, the remaining 90 percent writhe in pain.

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