Conflict & Justice

North Korean defector in the US

The Korean peninsula sits in the shadow of Japan, China, and Russia and for the last half century of course the US has been the military superpower in the region. The history of Korea is full of foreign invasions. This man is in his late 70s. When he was born in North Korea, Japan was the dominate power. He still speaks Japanese perfectly. He remembers the day in 1945 when Japan gave up control of North Korea to the US. He was shocked because Korean textbooks said Japan could never be defeated. Korea got independence but then in 1950 civil war broke out in what became the most violent part of the Cold War. He joined the North Korean Army to fight the American imperialists and their South Korean counterparts. He says he was wounded in an artillery fight. He wasn't much of a soldier and was lucky to survive and he sat out the rest of the war. He went on to study languages at the university and then the Russians came into power so the Russian language was a priority. That led to a successful career in academia which led him to a job opportunity outside of the country in Moscow to teach Korean. He was so good at his job, a South Korean spy took notice and set his sights on getting him to defect. The story is a bit complicated but here's how he told it to me: one day the spy brought him to an apartment where his sister, whom he had not seen in forty years, was waiting. The family had been separated after the Korean War. This was meant to persuade him to defect. As a member of the North Korean elite he was seen as a tool of propaganda. At first he refused to turn his back on the Motherland but after his superiors told him to return immediately, he feared he had been spotted with the spy and thought he would lose his job. At that point he made the decision to defect. Dressed in disguise he was flown out of Moscow and landed in South Korea, that was in 1992. the South Korean government pressured him to go public and denounce the North Korean regime, which he refused because he thought it would make it difficult for his former students and family, whom he has trouble talking about. He's convinced they were all sent to prison camps after he defected and he believes they're all dead now. He spent 10 years living in South Korea but never felt comfortable so he moved to the United States where he feels more secure. These days he gives speeches around the country. at a recent appearance at Duke he says he coached basketball but then tells his life story and talks about what he calls the real North Korea now run by Kim Jong Il. Denouncing North Korea in such a public way is no small matter, says his nephew. His autobiography was published in Korea last year and details his story.