INTERVIEW: ‘If I had stayed in North Korea, I might have been on the gravy train.’

Escapee elected to National Assembly talks about flight to the South, political goals.
By Lee Jeong Eun for RFA Korean
2024.04.24
INTERVIEW: ‘If I had stayed in North Korea, I might have been on the gravy train.’ Park Chung-kwon, elected as a proportional representative to the South Korean National Assembly, in an interview with Radio Free Asia
RFA

Park Chung-kwon is one of about 34,000 people who escaped from North Korea and resettled in the South. He is the third escapee to be elected to South Korea’s National Assembly.

His story is unusual. Unlike most escapees, who generally flee economic hardship, Park was a member of the North Korean elite on the fast track to a cushy life of power and privilege.

He was a graduate at the Kim Jong Un National Defense University and worked developing nuclear missiles, but after living a life most North Koreans could only dream of, he came to realize that he was helping to prop up a broken system that keeps most people living in misery.

So in 2009 he fled the country and defected to the South. While many escapees feel they are marginalized, Park’s drive to succeed suited South Korean society well. He entered the prestigious Seoul National University, where he earned a masters degree and a doctorate in materials engineering and later became a lead researcher at Hyundai Steel. 

RFA Korean interviewed Park about why he decided to leave his relatively privileged life in North Korea to come to the South, why he decided to enter politics and what policies he hopes to enact during his term in office. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RFA: You were an elite member of North Korean society and you were living a relatively comfortable life. What made you decide to escape?

Park: It was a direct trigger for me to learn the reality of the North Korean system and realize its essence. If I had stayed in North Korea, I might have been on the gravy train. I graduated from a university that develops, produces and researches strategic weapons. I was assigned to a job at a time when the North Korean authorities were promoting ‘military-first politics’ and emphasizing the military. 

The problem is that after learning about the reality of the North Korean system, my world view completely changed. The future, which I previously thought to be very hopeful, turned completely gloomy and all of my dreams and hopes disappeared. 

Also, the society of North Korea itself felt like a huge prison, and the everyday lives of residents were nothing but misery. In the meantime, I couldn’t even raise my voice to say that this was wrong. Even if I wanted to change something, there was nothing I could do. So, I escaped from North Korea with the idea of going out and working to inform and change the reality of the North Korean system.

RFA: Many North Korean escapees decide to escape only after experiencing the outside world first-hand. How is it that a young Pyongyang elite who had never left the country became skeptical of the North Korean system? 

Park: Before I changed my mind, you could say that I was a staunch defender, supporter and loyalist of the system. However, while I was in college, I witnessed a lot of corruption that is rampant in the North Korean system. 

I recognized that corruption among officials was a problem as I saw situations where one official committed a mistake but got away with it by paying a bribe, or where another official wanted to have power or be assigned to a good job and could get that with the right bribe.

Beginning in the third year of college, I became a student official. In North Korea, a student official has power to control students and manage their organizational lives. As a result, I learned how the North Korean system works and how it controls people. 

At that time, I read two essays written by (former leader) Kim Jong Il. It was Kim Jong Il’s rebuttal against criticisms of the socialist system from the outside world. But I found that everything that the outside world pointed out was correct. 

Socialism is totalitarianism, administrative order and empty rhetoric. Everything is correct. Also, North Korea talks about a monolithic ideological system, but it is natural for everyone to have different thoughts. So, I wondered why politically, we all had to become one. 

Just like a planned economy, how does the state know what I want to eat for breakfast tomorrow? That’s how the theoretical transition occurred. By the time I graduated from university, I realized that the system was wrong from the top.

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Park Chung-kwon, elected as a proportional representative to the South Korean National Assembly, in an interview with Radio Free Asia (RFA)

 

RFA: When you escaped from North Korea, did you have a plan for what you would do once you arrived in South Korea?

Park: I had several career-related scenarios, and one of them was to continue my studies at university. When I was living in North Korea, I looked up the best university in South Korea in the Rodong Sinmun, it said it was said to be Seoul National University. I thought, ‘I should give it a try at Seoul National University’ so I continued my studies there once I arrived. 

Also, I had the idea that I wanted to expose the reality of North Korean society to the outside world and help change the North Korean system. I also had thoughts about possibly working at the South Korean National Intelligence Service (the country’s spy agency).

RFA: So here you are, established in South Korea with a successful career. What is it that made you want to go into politics? When did you get the inkling to pursue political life? 

Park: I never thought about going into politics. Rather, I was interested first in just making money and eventually starting a business. The opportunity for political life came when I received a recruitment offer from the People Power Party, South Korea’s ruling party. 

The reason I wanted to make money was because I always wanted to live a helpful life to our society, but I also wanted to live a meaningful life after risking my life to escape from North Korea. 

It was not an easy decision. After a lot of sleepless nights thinking about it, I decided to enter politics because I thought there is a definite role for someone like me.

RFA: Your National Assembly term begins on May 30. What do you plan to focus on during your four-year term?

Park: Since I have a background as a North Korean escapee and an engineering student, I plan to focus on inter-Korean relations, North Korea policy, and science, technology and industry. 

First, we plan to prepare bills for North Korean escapees so that they can have a support system within South Korean society beyond initial settlement, such as in employment and starting a business.

Also, as someone who has experienced the North and South Korean systems sequentially and as an active supporter of liberal democracy and the market economic system, I would like to play a role in protecting South Korea’s liberal democratic system. 

I also plan to act as a speaker to help the South Korean people discern how they view North Korea, so as to view the North Korean regime and its people separately. 

I majored in weapons development in North Korea, so I plan to actively participate in South Korea’s security and defense fields.

I am a representative of young scientists in the fields of science, technology and industry, so I will actively support scientists so that they can work with pride. I will work to create a better environment for companies to do business.

RFA: What specific policies do you think are needed regarding North Korean escapees in South Korea?

Park: Current policies to support North Korean escapees are focused on those who initially entered the country. The number of escapees entering South Korea has plummeted since the onset of coronavirus. Nevertheless, the number of relevant support organizations and staff has expanded. In line with the changed situation, policies to support North Korean escapees need to be improved in a streamlined and systematic direction.

Additionally, it is quite difficult for North Korean escapees to find employment. Even if they get a job, it may be difficult to continue working long term. Therefore, I believe it is necessary to provide employment opportunities for North Korean escapees until they successfully settle down. What I want to say to the public in South Korea is that there is a need to understand and wait for North Korean escapees to adapt to South Korean society. Doing so will greatly help North Korean escapees to adapt.

When I first came to South Korea, I also felt that the gap between the two Koreas was so distant that it could not be seen with my naked eyes. Still, I was proud of having received an elite education in North Korea, but that pride collapsed when I entered graduate school in the South.  In the early days of graduate school, I studied with less than 4 hours of sleep a day. I felt so pitiful and knew so little. But my classmates and my colleagues understood me, waited for me, and helped me. So, I was able to adapt quickly and succeed in settling down.

RFA: You said you would serve as a speaker for the North Korean people. What is the most serious human rights problem in North Korea in your opinion? What efforts are needed to improve it?

Park: When it comes to human rights issues in North Korea, it is no exaggeration to say that almost everything is a problem. 

But what I think is the most serious problem is the harsh punishment. In North Korea, basic human rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of movement and ownership are not guaranteed, and when you do exercise your basic rights, you are severely punished. For example, the most serious problem is that people are executed for accessing information from the outside world.

To improve this situation, the North Korean authorities must recognize that the way of maintaining the system by blocking the people from the outside world and the flow of information is no longer working. 

Times have changed a lot. The minds of North Korean residents have also changed significantly from the past. We must work externally to help the North Korean regime face this reality and find a different strategy.

The North Korean regime also needs to recognize that this method of controlling North Korea by cutting it off from the outside world will no longer work due to advances in science and technology. Not only South Korea but the entire world must continue to pay attention to North Korean residents and work to improve their human rights.

RFA: I was wondering if there were any cases where you personally felt a change in the mind of the young generation while living in North Korea.

Park: I think it was when I was in my fourth year of college. I went to my hometown and had dinner with my high school classmates. Blackouts are common in North Korea, so there was no electricity, and we were eating by lamplight. Then, the electricity came on for a moment and we were all very happy. But, less than 5 minutes later the power went out again. 

In this situation, a friend asked if there would be news in the paper about the five-hour power outage in Hamhung. In North Korea, power outages are not accidents, but everyday life. But this friend had the perception that it was an accident.

Just before I escaped from North Korea, the North Korean leadership began to transfer power to Kim Jong Un and was spreading rumors … that Kim Jong Un was a very good leader and a genius. 

Young friends who heard the rumor responded by saying, “No matter how much they say he is a genius, how good will he be?” 

There have been quite a few cases that I cannot talk about openly, but I’ve been surrounded by such expressions.

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Park Chung-kwon, elected as a proportional representative to the South Korean National Assembly, in an interview with Radio Free Asia (RFA)

RFA: At the end of last year, Kim Jong Un defined inter-Korean relations as hostile and said that unification of the two Koreas cannot be achieved. What do you think is the reason?

Park: I believe that the North Korean leadership is feeling a sense of crisis over the survival of the system because the changes in the people’s minds have reached a point where it is impossible for the Kim Dynasty to succeed to a fourth generation. 

To make such a transition possible, it will be very important to bring about a change in the people's minds. There is admiration for South Korea among North Korean residents, especially young people, so I think the North Korean authorities are working to instill a vague fear of South Korea in people’s minds by defining South Korea as a hostile country and not an object of unification.

RFA: Do you think unification of North and South Korea is possible?

Park: I believe that regardless of whether we think that unification is possible or not, that it could occur at a time when we cannot predict it, and whether we want it or not. 

I believe that unification is the destiny of our race. It would be most desirable for a change in the North Korean people’s minds to lead to a change in the North Korean government’s strategy and for unification to occur after North Korea becomes a normal country. But this ideal situation may not happen. 

Whatever the method, it is important to change the mindset of the North Korean people to minimize the impact of unification. The more that the North Korean authorities say that South Korea is not the target of unification and that they are not part of the same race, the more South Korea should pay attention to North Koreans and work to improve their human rights and change their mindset. We need to ensure that North Koreans have positive feelings toward South Korea so that when unification occurs, we can minimize the shock.

RFA: What message can your story as an elected representative give to North Korean residents?

Park: I graduated from a good university, and had a good job, so North Korean people are probably curious as to why I escaped. 

It would be quite a shock to hear that someone came to South Korea on his own, received a doctorate from the best university, worked as a researcher at a good company, lived a good life, and then became a member of the National Assembly representing the people. 

I think it could be a source of hope not only for those who are loyal to the North Korean system, but also for those who have already changed their minds but have no choice but to conform to the system. 

I am excited to see what the results will be if this news spreads to North Korean residents, especially the elites and young people. I think it will be a bigger message if I am recognized by the South Korean people for doing well in legislative activities in the National Assembly rather than being a waste of taxes.

Translated by Claire S. Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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