The short answer is most probably no. The stories we hear about the evils of the North Korean government are definitely backed by facts. However, the reason for focusing on these evils without also discussing any contradictory points serves the purpose of driving a specific narrative. If given the chance to view the bigger and more factual picture, would you not choose to do so?
Coming From a Position of Bias
Being an American by birth and upbringing, it was not uncommon to hear about the evils of life in North Korea. Similar beliefs held about China are also common. After having the pleasure of living in China, it not only shook my previously held beliefs, it told me a lot about how a person beliefs may be shaped incorrectly.
Over dinner in Shenzhen with some Hong Kong friends, there was talk about living and working in China. The discussion had shifted to a friend’s wife and kids remaining in Hong Kong. This person’s wife at the time, a native Hong Kong citizen, refused to ever cross the border into mainland China due to all the negative stories she had been told throughout her life. The wife was deathly afraid of numerous possibilities. Even though some of these possibilities had some truth to them, they happened rarely instead of being a common occurrence.
Even at the time, it occurred to me this was the equivalent of somebody choosing to never visit the US due to gun violence. It is true gun violence is a problem in the United States at a level well above other developed nations. However, no American would ever consider this a valid argument to bar oneself from visiting the country.
The Western Consensus on North Korea
Baseline reporting on North Korea in the West follows a pretty strict narrative. North Korea is an authoritarian communist government that requires intervention to save the innocent citizens trapped there.
It is widely believed North Korea’s history as well as the current regime are ones of atrocities and oppression. The responsibility of these crimes rest solely on the ruling Kim family. Often reports will talk about the absolute oppression that forces its citizens to flee the country and their overwhelming fear of repatriation.
There are facts that definitely support this narrative, the issue is with what is being left out of the story. This one-sided narrative is very much the representation of Chomsky’s fifth filter of the mass media, a common enemy.
Oh Chong-song’s name itself might not ring a bell, but you have probably read of the North Korean soldier’s daring escape across the DMZ’s Joint Security Area in November 2017. The wounds he suffered during the affair were subsequently highlighted in the media. Reports came out of South Korea that he was not only seriously injured, but also suffered from parasitic worms. The implication of the parasites being that this was due to the poor conditions in North Korea.
The worm however, was Ascaris lumbricoides, a large roundworm found commonly in tropical areas which infects 1/6th the world’s population. The eggs of this worm are so tenacious, the difficulty in killing them is considered by some to be only second to prions.
Leaving out this known fact about the parasite is the kind of strategy used to push a specific narrative. It is a telling of the poor conditions in North Korea without providing any context as to how those conditions came to be.
Subsequent information about Oh also began to push against the common narrative. Oh is the son of a major general in the Korean People’s Army, meaning he was very likely more privileged than his peers. Oh’s decision to defect would seem to confirm the ideas we hold on North Korea. However, from an alleged but unconfirmed confession, it has been revealed that Oh’s motivation to escape to South Korea was due to the fact that he had murdered somebody shortly before the escape.
This confession has not been confirmed by South Korean officials, but if true, would typically result in prosecution or repatriation. Instead of actions on this alleged confession, Oh gave an interview to the Japanese language newspaper Sankei Shimbun in November 2018. In this interview, Oh alleged that 80% of younger North Koreans disapprove of the government. The stories from North Korean defectors that gain the most traction are noticeably one sided in their portrayal.
Would this be due to the fact that they are all true, or could this portrayal be manufactured?
Opinions From The Other Side
In what I considered to be an explosive independent documentary, Loyal Citizens of Pyongyang in Seoul (서울의 평양 시민들) conducts interviews of DPRK “defectors” which paint a very different picture. David Yun, member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), conducted these interviews during a month spent in Seoul.
When writing on bias or propaganda, it would be disingenuous to exclude the fact that the PSL is a Marxist-Leninist political party based in the United States. Although their motives may be suspect, this does not devalue the information presented in the documentary.
At the time of writing this video only has 939 views on Youtube, something I consider a travesty to the truth.
There are some details in the documentary that raised questions, but also shed some light on life in North Korea. One of my minor contentions was in regards to one of the interviewees points on oxtails, as I was not able to confirm the veracity of her statements as to the effects on the animal.
Instead of getting into too much detail on the contents of the documentary, watching it is something very much suggested.
Something the documentary does do well is to raise questions on defector stories. Refugees lying about their conditions or past is nothing new, as reported by The Guardian on Syrian Refugees in the story, Verifying refugees’ stories: why is it so difficult target=”_blank”?; it occurs regularly.
People lie for gain, whether that is asylum, or in the case of North Korea, through financial motivation and freedom. The freedom being referred to is not freedom from North Korea, it is freedom from solitary confinement and the intense interrogation methods performed by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) to root out North Korean spies. This process typically involves bribery as well as blackmail to force defectors to the whim of the NIS.
The Famous Defectors
Park Yeon-mi and Shin Dong-hyuk are very well known faces in the international North Korean defector scene. Some have coined them as “celebrity defectors”.
Both of them have been criticized for inconsistencies and changing their stories.
One of Park’s most famous stories is the execution of a women for watching foreign films. However, an article by The Diplomat, The Strange Tale of Yeonmi Park, tells of another North Korean defector which calls this story ridiculous and false. The women says public executions are rarely performed in city centers, but in the outskirts of the cities. Park’s account of the specificities of the crime also constantly change. The films being watched flip back and forth from being South Korean or American.
Similarly, the topic of a book and also famous for his testimony to the UN, Shin has changed many of the details from his original story.
Both have financially benefited from the telling of their stories.
Criticism of their stories is often met with its own criticism and this is relatively understandable. It does not change the fact that the prison camps exist, but the potential motivations behind these embellishments have to be questioned.
Freedom in Democracy?
Assumedly escaping to South Korea, a Western aligned and Democratic nation, would mean these defectors would finally get a taste of true freedom. Stripped of the shackles from a totalitarian North Korea is exactly the type of thing we should seemingly applaud.
In April 2016, the defection of thirteen North Korean workers running a restaurant in China permeated headlines. The group of that size defecting together had not been seen for many years. Later, in May of 2018, the manager and only male of the group, Heo Kang-il, admitted on a televised interview that he had tricked the waitresses into defecting.
Contrary to the South Korean government’s position that the twelve women had voluntarily defected, other inconsistencies began to arise. Defectors typically take months to travel from China through the jungles of Southeast Asia in order get to a country where they can make the final trip to South Korea. The group of twelve women and their manager made it to South Korea in two days. How had they managed to get documents to take a flight out of China directly to Kuala Lumpur?
Heo’s claims put these inconsistencies at the foot of the then South Korean president, Park Geun-hye and the South Korean spy agency (NIS). Heo states that he was promised a job, money, and even a medal, but only if he brought the twelve women with him. Failure to do so and the South Korean government would not only reject his defection, but also report his motivations to the North Korean government.
This is a far cry from the portrayal of the South Koreans as saviors of their downtrodden brethren that we are typically presented with.
Since these facts have come to light, you would think the women were allowed to return to North Korea as they wish and as the North Korean government has insisted upon. Unfortunately the truth is that the South Korean government severely restricts the movements of defectors by withholding passports unless they feel their own indoctrination takes a hold.
Regardless of what we believe of the North Korean government, we also believe in individual rights. If a defector is making a conscious decision to return to North Korea, their motivations are irrelevant, it is their personal right to do so. Instead defectors are forced to etch out a living in South Korea, where they are notoriously discriminated against. This is not freedom.
Presenting a United Front
Bias in media is prevalent regardless of its source and this is not only due to financial motives, but also political ones.
A media organization may dish out hard-hitting journalism, but the primary motive for this is to be the first entity to paint a story in their narrative. Beating competitors, or being the first to break a story, garners you not only more readers, but also kickbacks from becoming the reference point for the work done.
Negative stories rile you up, they make you consider how you could spring into action and make a change in the world. Positive stories tell you the situation is fine and doesn’t need your input. This is the very reason the media disproportionately focuses on negative news.
If the facts are not enough to speak on the situation and garner the attention or action being sought, then could it not be possible the situation does not deserve the attention or action?
There is no necessity for the embellishment of defector stories. Nor is there a necessity for the South Korean government to forcibly push a more dastardly narrative. By pushing falsities in order further a position, the actual facts are being undermined.
Without falling into the realms of conspiracy theorists, skepticism of something presented is a healthy contemplation on the truth. Much like you would raise an eyebrow at an offer from a Nigerian Prince, question potentially ulterior motives even when they conform to your preexisting beliefs.