North Korean Defectors Admire Democracy But Are Confused By Its Freedoms

A commentary by Andrei Lankov
North Korean defectors release a balloon carrying anti-North Korea leaflets at a park in the border town of Paju, north of Seoul, Jan. 15, 2014.

I frequently meet with North Koreans, many of whom are defectors and some of whom are North Koreans living in a third country. When I ask them about South Korean politics they give various answers, but many of them agree on one thing: Most North Koreans who listen to South Korean radio and read South Korean newspapers think that the South Korean president is a great person.

The reason for this is that they are amazed the South Korean president can rule over the country while being sharply criticized by South Koreans.

Most defectors who settle in South Korea are happy with their life there. South Korean life for them is not without its problems, but they have little to complain about materially. Defectors think highly of the individual freedoms enjoyed by South Koreans.

They like it that no one forces them to live regimented lives and that they are able to enjoy whatever books and movies they want.

That being said, though, many defectors have trouble understanding the political freedoms guaranteed under South Korean law.

After arriving in South Korea, North Korean defectors find themselves witnessing demonstrations opposing government policies and become aware of severe media criticism of the government. Many defectors believe that such criticism is unneeded and even dangerous.

As people who were taught that solidarity is the only path to a strong country, they find it difficult to understand that controversy and heated discussions in the public sphere are necessary elements of democratic politics.

No one above criticism

The freedom of different opinions and ideologies to coexist and compete is a fundamental principle of democratic society. And in such a society, no one is immune from criticism. South Koreans believe that criticism by liberals of a conservative-led government is natural, just as is criticism by conservatives of a government led by liberals.

This criticism does not weaken, but strengthens, the country. Politicians, including the president, are only human. And despite their claims that they are free from corruption, they are  just as prone as anyone else to make mistakes.

In reality, they may not be as free from corruption as they may claim. Democracy aims to prevent such mistakes or abuses of power from occurring.

Democratic leaders live in fear that they may lose their hold on power. If they make a mistake, they may be able to hide it for a short time, but this will not be easy. And if their mistakes are revealed, they may have to resign their office or sometimes even go to jail.

Faced with  consequences like these, they are less likely to commit crimes.

North Korean cadres also live in fear. Their fear is not of the people, though, but of the leader, his family, and close associates. As a result, cadres avoid committing acts that would upset the leader, but do not fear upsetting the people.

Thus, the criticism directed toward South Korean politicians that defectors find strange is a very important political tool—a tool that has allowed modern countries like South Korea to develop successfully.

Translated by Robert Lauler.

Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, is a Russian historian, North Korea expert, and regular RFA contributor.

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