Michael Gerson

SEOUL -- How does a mind -- born into comprehensive tyranny, conditioned for loyalty, fed on lies -- eventually change? What shifts or clicks or breaks?

"I cannot pinpoint one event," says Kim Seung-Min, a former North Korean army officer who defected in the 1990s. "I was very loyal to Kim Jong Il and to the party." His father was a well-known professor and writer; his mother a journalist. But he recalls the leaflet drops from across the border that showed pictures of South Korea. "One image stuck with me. People were wearing all sorts of different clothes. That was remarkable to me."

In such profound isolation, even the possibility of picking your clothes can spark a revolution of the mind.

Another image has stayed with Kim. "On his birthday, Kim Jong Il would give Mercedes-Benzes to people in the privileged classes," he told me. "He would shower them with tangerines and bananas, which most North Koreans citizens never see." (Consider an economy in which tangerines are symbols of privilege.) "But once while I was traveling on business, I saw a pile of 20 corpses lying on the ground" -- victims of starvation. "This was not uncommon, but people were surrounding a corpse to watch. Two belts of lice were moving across the body, which came from the corpse when the host died. Even today, when I think of this scene, I feel like throwing up."

Most North Koreans, says Kim, "have no point of comparison" that would reveal their oppression and suffering as abnormal. Kim now runs Free North Korea Radio, which makes shortwave broadcasts across the border. Other defectors drift large helium balloons north carrying leaflets, small radios and dollar bills. All are trying to replicate their own internal revolution -- to seed the doubts that might someday become dissent.

It is a risky, lonely task. Defectors are living reminders of heroic, dangerous struggles that prosperous, comfortable South Koreans would sometimes prefer to ignore. "Korean socialist groups," says Kim, "held demonstrations, forcing us to move from location to location. In the mail, we got axes covered in blood. North Korea sent spies. Hackers attacked our website. At some point, all of us started carrying Tasers for self-protection. Even now there are two policemen waiting downstairs who protect me."

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Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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