Hearing the Screams

Posted: Jun 11, 2010 12:01 AM
Hearing the Screams

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."

Rush Limbaugh

But this is also the best of times to be an information warrior. Ten or 15 years ago, getting news out of North Korea often involved sewing letters into jackets and crossing the border. Now, secretly recorded video of public executions in North Korean prison camps goes viral on the Internet. Libraries of information can move on a flash drive.

And China is playing an unexpected role in the gradual opening of North Korea. Not the Chinese government, which still captures defectors and returns them. But China's thriving smuggling culture reaches into North Korea. Legal and illegal trade spreads radios and cell phones. Chinese cell networks cover North Korean border regions. Brokers run a profitable underground railroad of defectors from North Korea to China and then to Mongolia, Thailand or Vietnam. The relative openness of China is becoming a serious threat to the North Korean regime, in unpredictable ways. During three years spent hiding in China following his defection, Kim became a Christian. "When I first came to China," Kim says, "I found the true meaning of the cross.

With strategic options relating to North Korea limited, an information assault on the regime assumes greater urgency. The irreplaceable National Endowment for Democracy supports Free North Korea Radio. But neither South Korea nor the United States shows much creativity or commitment in applying new information technologies to help the spread of freedom.

Technology is important to this task. But defectors remind us that democratic progress ultimately depends on a moral determination. How does a mind change? The key, says another North Korean defector, Kang Chol-Hwan, is "the internal courage to see the essence of evil."

In his autobiography, "Witness," Whittaker Chambers tells the story of a German diplomat in Moscow during the Cold War who abandoned his communist beliefs. The diplomat's daughter explained the shift: "'He was immensely pro-Soviet,' she said, 'and then -- you will laugh at me -- but you must not laugh at my father -- and then -- one night -- in Moscow -- he heard screams. That's all. Simply one night he heard screams.'"

For those with ears to hear, those screams can be heard in North Korea.