It is eleven o’clock. In the city of Seoul, South Corea, the darkness of the winter nightfall is being challenged by the streetlights and the city life. Jun Heo is sitting in his room waiting for a call from the other corner of the world, separated by a twelve-hour difference. He is 26 years old in Western age (28 in Corean age), and his dark hair, quiet smile, a thin face and glasses over his nose, make him look like a regular young man.
Now a prominent Political Science student at the Seoul University, he takes some events of his uncommon life with humor, but not all of them. And it is an understandable attitude if one begins listening to his story: Jun is the protagonist of a journey that only a few can imagine or survive. A journey that starts at the deepest darkness and ends after several years of hiding, persecution and suffering.
The reason? Jun Heo is one of the 30,000 North Korean defectors estimated to have successfully escaped the most hermetic State in the world. And a regime with a secret weapon: monopoly over truth, the ability to lie to its people, to teach them from kindergarten to hate the world (especially the US, Japan and South Korea), and to raise an army of soldiers who are convinced of how important it is to defend their country against any kind of imperialism and foreign influence. They manage to do this even without electricity, food and the worst concentration camps in the world.
Jun arrived in South Korea around 2010, after he escaped from The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) for a second time; from the “best place in the world”. Today he is a passionate YouTuber, eager to tell people about the importance of democracy and what his motherland is really like.
1. A childhood in darkness, and the arduous march
Jun Heo (JH): I was born in 1992 in North Korea, in Northern Hamgyong province. My parents were members of the Communist Party, and were highly loyal to the regime. Actually, I was a communist too at first, because I was raised as one, my parents always told me: “you have to be loyal to the Kim Family, we live in a great country”. I was convinced it was right. Since I can remember my dream was to be a soldier in North Korea’s Army, like my grandfather, who was a high rank General.
But from 1992 to 1997 there was a cruel economic crisis in North Korea, (the March of Suffering) millions starved to death. Every day I saw human corpses on the railroad & on the streets. It was terrible.
Author: At that time, one of his parents’ jobs was to take dead bodies from the streets and bury them. Even though Jun was a toddler he still remembers going with his mom, Chunsil, to the fields, and how she barely left him alone.
During that time food was scarce, as the Soviet Union perished causing the DPRK to lose most of its international supporters and therefore, its supplies. The worst period of famine lasted four years, from 1993 to 1997. Although the number of victims is still unknown, some organizations have estimated at least 1,000,000 deaths. A North Korean survey carried out by the Government claims there might have been up to 3.5 million victims.
JH: My mom was always worried about how to feed us, so she defected from North Korea in 1997, in order to find food in China. Luckily, she didn’t get arrested. We had relatives in China and they helped my family and my mother, she came back with 1000 Chinese Yuan, big money for that time.
Author: Chunsil crossed three times the border of China in order to get food; she got caught twice. When the police stopped her in 2003, the consequences were severe. She was punished, physically assaulted by the police, and was kept behind bars. Sadly, she even lost her eyesight due to the attacks & injuries. When Jun went to meet her in jail, he was extremely shocked to see her face blackened with wounds.
A: How and when did you escape from North Korea?
JH: After she got caught, my mom managed to escape from North Korea again and she never came back. Two years later in 2005, when I was in high school, two young men approached me one day after school and said, ”your mom is waiting for you far away from here, you can meet her again if you walk with us, it’s a few hours from here”. I believed them, because I missed her deeply. So, I followed them to the north and we crossed the Tumen (Duman) river. I never noticed before I lived so close to the northern border and that stream surrounded the DPRK (…).
When I got to the other side there were other brokers. They were Chinese and could only speak a little Korean. They said: “follow me, your mom is waiting for you over there”. Back then I still hadn’t realized that I was on Chinese land. It came to me after a few hours in the car, I started to notice something was wrong, because all the streets had street lamps. It was weird, in North Korea there weren’t any street lights, actually, there wasn’t any electricity.
What do you mean, when you say “there wasn’t any electricity”?
In DPRK, 98% of the population doesn’t have an electric supply. Every house has a gas lamp, but the country doesn’t have enough oil nor gas, because the US negotiated with the Chinese government to prevent them from sending oil to North Korea. Now, almost 100% of the population live in darkness, it’s like the 17th century.
What was it like to get to a place like that?
JH: They took me to Beijing, China’s capital. I was there around seven days with another 16 North Koreans who had escaped. Soon I realized, I just defected North Korea. I started to feel scared, because I knew what would happen if I got caught.
But, at the same time, I was surprised; there were so many cars, tall buildings and even street lights. It was the first time I saw any of those things (…). It was like paradise. Then I realized: my country lied to me my whole life, they always said: “there is no country better than North Korea, you live in the best country in the world”. Everything the North Korean Government said to me was a lie, there were so many cars, so much food. I was astonished by everything in Beijing. Even just staying there for seven days, I was shocked.
Author: Jun never got to see his mom. On the 8th night, the Chinese police broke into the house he was staying at, they battered the brokers to death with stun batons and took him to a city at the frontier called Dandong. Then, he was was taken into custody by the North Korean Police. What happened? among the brokers there was a North Korean spy who betrayed them.
2. Trapped in the
best worst place on the planet
What happened when you were taken back to DPRK?
I was caught with the other 16 defectors by the secret police in 2005, when I was 14 years old (Korean age). I was sent back to North Korea immediately and confined to the Sinuiju concentration camp for over 3 months. Even though I was a teenager, we were all crammed in, there wasn’t a concentration camp especially for kids.
Author;There’s little to no information about the Sinuiju concentration camp or Kyo-hwa-so No. 3 Sinuiju. The satellite and ground photos show just crumbling buildings. According to several sources it has contained up to 2.500 prisoners. However, it’s known that North Korean re-education camps have been tagged as those “even worse than the Nazi camps”. Everything is dirty, the beds filled with bugs, and convicts are demanded to work in merciless conditions. Same sex prisoners shoved into small cells, women were drugged & raped, prisoners were beaten & screaming all the time & there was a lack of food. There are even reports that soldiers killed newborn babies, they were drowned face down in buckets of water. Jun was tortured every single day.
“it’s known that North Korean re-education camps have been tagged as those ‘even worse than the Nazi camps’”
JH: They don’t care, they see people like animals, traitors or defectors. The reason I got out of there earlier than others is because my auntie bribed the secret police.
Author: Even though he came back to his home, everything had changed. Jun wasn’t able to talk to anyone or go to school, he was put under house arrest by the secret police. If he needed to go anywhere, he would have to inform his captors first, but what shocked him the most, is that his family was treated as bad as he was.
JH: I told you my grandfather was a General, I thought “how could they treat my family and I like this”. Why? because they were loyal to North Korea, but they treated us like animals. I was disappointed with my country, and still am.
3. The second escape: two years between borders and rivers
When did you decide to escape again?
JH: In 2008, when I was 17, I told myself “I can’t live like this” so I planned to defect again, I had to follow it through. If I was caught, I’d have to go back to the concentration camp again, my life would be over.
Author: Jun found some people who helped him get out of DPRK. When he was ready, he went to see his father, who was still loyal to the regime, he bought him socks and gave him all the money he had. “l won’t need it anymore, I’m leaving”, he said, and left.
The brokers took him to Musan, a city in the North, and bribed the border keepers to “look the other way” while they crossed the border through the Tumen river, a place known for its grim look.
JH: When I arrived in China the first thing I did was calling my mom, she was shocked. “Is it really you Jun?” that’s the first thing she asked. Obviously, my voice had changed.
How did you know your mom’s telephone number?
I actually got a call from her when I was in Beijing in 2005, I remembered her number and luckily, she never changed it. Actually, North Korean defectors don’t usually change their phone numbers because they expect a call from North Korea, they keep it over the years.
So, I met with two other brokers in Yanji, a city in northeast China, and they brought me to Shanghai. I had relatives there, because my grandfather was Chinese. In the Korean war in 1950, the Chinese government helped North Korea. Millions were killed in the war and they weren’t any soldiers alive, the North Korean Government tried to convince my grandpa and many Chinese soldiers to stay. He never returned to China, but my Grandpa’s relatives still live there, so I met them in Shanghai and stayed there for over two years.
What do you think about China & and it’s dictatorship? It’s not as hard as North Korea, but still a dictatorship.
China and North Korea, I think, are the same. Both have a dictatorship that controls everything, the only big difference is that China has more power than North Korea.
Then you escaped from China to South Korea, how?
JH: I was always hiding from the Chinese police, in 2010 I decided to go to South Korea.
Author: Jun, along with 15 other North Korean defectors, were separated in two groups and travelled up to Thailand through the Mekong river to find a United Nations office. It had to be Thailand, because almost any other country in Southeast Asia, like Laos or Vietnam, had a communist party on its lead.
What was the difference between what you expected from South Korea and what you really found?
I learned a lot about South Korea when I was in Shanghai, I watched South Korean movies and heard about South Korean society, but the feeling was different. As soon as I got my South Korean passport, it meant I didn’t need to run anymore.
4. Being a defector in the 21st century: technology as a tool for fighting
In your words, how is it to be a defector in the 21st century. We have phones, social media, and plenty of means to communicate.
There weren’t any cellphones in North Korea, only wired 20th century phones, not any 21st century smartphones, so not only for me but every defector when we first arrived in South Korea, of course we were taken back by IT, & the society. But, you know before arriving here our lives were only focused on surviving, or running away, so we didn’t think pay much attention to that, or anything else, the society etc., we only concentrated on surviving.
How are your family and friends in DPRK? Have you heard from them?
Jun: I have never talked to them, so I have no idea how they are. If I did, they would be in danger.
Author: Jun dedicates his life to use technology to tell people about how it was living in DPRK. His videos on YouTube touch on common and not so common topics, such as how it is to grow up in North Korea, what do North Koreans think of Americans, how women are treated in North Korea, and even, how do South Koreans treat defectors.
Why did you decide to start your YouTube channel and become a YouTuber?
I think people don’t understand what’s really happening in North Korea. What North Korean defectors have gone through, I wanted to tell people the truth, I wanted to share information about North Korea, the defectors and Human Rights. People are dying everyday by starvation & women mistreated.
JH: I didn’t want the channel to only be about me. We are around 30.000 defectors and have to speak out together, I knew some of them, & I tried to convince them “you have to speak out, speak to the world what you’ve been through in North Korea, it’s really important, lots of people want to know more about defectors and what’s happening in North Korea”.
Author: Many remember the images of thousands of North Koreans crying the dead of their leader, Kim Jong Il, in 2011. From the west, it seems that North Koreans not only love theirs leaders above everything else, but they also think the Kim family is sacred. During the time of Kim Il Sung, the first leader, and then Kim Jong Il, people often said that leaders didn’t urinate or defecated, and they never made mistakes, as they were above humanity’s flaws.
What do North Koreans think of their leaders? In one of your videos you interviewed defectors about what they know about Christmas in North Korea. They said there was no god but only leaders, & them & their families would get punished if they were caught celebrating any religion.
There isn’t any god. The only god they believe in is the Kim family and Kim Jong Un, our current leader. I think these days people already know that the Kim family is not sacred, Kim Jong Un is not a god anymore, the people know much more now, they watch South Korean movies every day.
How do they get these South Korean Movies?
I remember watching South Korean movies when I was there, close to the border people would also listen to the South Korean radio. Also, many defectors say that activists put a lot of South Korean drama onto USBs and send them to North Korea through China. So, because of this lots of defectors have watched South Korean movies.
Author: Just like the movie “Chuck Norris vs Communism”, activists have found a way to show North Koreans to the outside world. They smuggle USB drives through the Tumen river and bribe the police to pass it on to the people. One of the notable activists is Chol Hwan Kang, a former North Korean defector, who manages around 4.000 flash drives each year.
What do you think about Kim Jong Un?
Actually, I was angry about the Kim family and Kim Jong Un, but getting angry solves nothing, so I just ignore the leaders. Right now, I’m studying political science and therefore I could say something pragmatic, if I think about it again, he’s a rational person, I don’t mean he’s a great leader, but, If I were Kim Jong Un, I would be like him. He knows how to control the country, he knows how to achieve power in North Korea, but it doesn’t mean he’s a good person.
Actually, in the west, we also get propaganda from North Korea, it shows it as a heaven-like country. Do you think propaganda is bad for defectors?
Propaganda is quite useful to control people. It is not essentially a bad thing, but in North Korea there isn’t any information, so they don’t have any idea of what’s happening in the world. Therefore, propaganda is really bad in dictatorships. In democracies, people can judge over propaganda, they can think for themselves, they can tell if someone is lying or telling the truth.
There are people more susceptible to believe them, and they support DPRK, so they convince them that DPRK is paradise?
(He laughs) Who would believe what they say…
You can laugh, but. Alejandro Cao de Benós, came to Chile in 2014, he made speeches to the radical left and they cheered for him, and we have a former presidential candidate called Eduardo Artés, who said “DPRK is a people’s democracy”, “in DPRK people are happier” or “In Chile we are fighting for things that DPRK they already have”.
It’s possible, maybe in some places people don’t have enough information about North Korea and they don’t have any idea of what happens in North Korea, and how the government really treats their people. I can understand them if they don’t have access to information, but…that’s why I make my videos.
Why did you study political science?
One day, in the future I think I can be a politician. I think North Korean defectors would be quite useful for society. We can help society, we can help the people’s way of thinking and understanding each other.
What would you like to do when you finish university?
I’m not sure yet, but l’m seriously considering being a YouTuber, my YouTube channel is getting more subscribers, & now people wait for my new uploads.
Do you think there will be a reunification some day?
I don’t believe a reunification will happen, it’s almost impossible. A dictatorship has never given up its power for a reunification to be possible, they’d have to give up their power first.
What about your society? You live in one of the most developed countries in the world. What do you think about South Korea?
South Korea is my second mother country, they allowed me to live here, gave me a passport, housing & money. They accepted my application to Seoul University to study a career in political science. I’m truly thankful what the society has done for me here, and I almost feel I’m South Korean, even though I was born in North Korea. I think what makes you is not where you were born, but where you are now.
What about discrimination problems against North Koreans?
South Korea is not the best country in the world. People always judge North Korean defectors, or homosexuals it’s ridiculous! I don’t understand it. Many people tell me “you are a communist”, “a spy”, “go back to North Korea”. Of course, I understand people have different ideas… but they don’t have any empathy, they don’t think what they’re saying before they say it.
South Korea’s economy is the eleventh largest in the world, they have a strong economy, but the people’s way of thinking is not developed yet, not like Japan or America, the way people think is still stuck in the 20th century.
You mean they still have a Cold War mentality?
Yeah, they still think like those during the Cold War, but it’s 2019 now, almost half a century has passed. We live in 2019, they don’t realize they are living in 2019.
How do you value freedom of expression or democracy?
Of course, those are very important things, Just Imagine, if I was in North Korea right now, I wouldn’t have any right to speak. Actually, I wouldn’t be able to make an argument like this, peoples’ way of thinking is not developed, because of the repression. These are really important things, there’s really a big difference between South and North Korea. So, it’s a really big deal for every North Korean defector to be able to speak, watch listen & think for themselves.
In a previous interview you said that North Koreans need to change, otherwise there will never be a real relation between them and South Koreans. What do you think North Korean needs to change to adapt better to South Korea?
I think they have to understand what democracy is, because North Koreans think the Kim family regime is the best regime in the world. I wouldn’t push them, but they need to be able to access other ideas and information, information about the world & western countries, then they’d be able to compare and choose between democracy and dictatorship.
Since toddlers North Koreans are taught to hate the US and the west, so they see DPRK as the best country in the world? How do North Koreans see the west then?
They would never say “America is one of the richest countries in the world”. Instead, they point out that Americans have killed North Koreans and they try to end North Korea. We have to get missiles and test nuclear bombs, because America will attack our country and will kill all of us. Actually, they don’t call them Americans, they call them “animals”, (or miguk-nom).
Do you do think China is preventing a change in North Korea, enhancing a dictatorship and preventing the reunification?
“I believe a
reunification is not going to happen,
because the world doesn’t
want a reunification.”
JH: I think that the Chinese government won’t help any reunification because they don’t want the Korean peninsula to be one, because if they become one country, they would have much more economic and military power, stronger than now. It could rank up to the 6th most powerful country in the world. I think the Chinese government has always tried to prevent it. Not only the Chinese government, also the Japanese, and even the American government, because they provide weapons and protection to South Korea. If they got a reunification they wouldn’t be able to do it anymore. That’s why I believe a reunification is not going to happen, because the world doesn’t want a reunification.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), also known as North Korea, is often portrayed In the news as a dictatorial State, that threatens all the world’s stability by testing nuclear bobs in the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes, it appears on the headlines because of its leaders (the Kim family), who have an incredible amount of power over their country and the region. Kim Jong Un has become an international figure since his father, Kim Jong Il, died in 2011.
North Korea is often compared with its sibling, South Korea (The Republic of Korea, ROK), a country with an estimated income of over US$ 40.000, and one of the top IT developers in the planet. Both used to be one. But after the Korean War (1950-1953), they took different paths: the North became a Communist Regime & an ally of the Soviet Union, while the South became a democracy (not a perfect one), with an open market.
How is it really like, to live in North Korea?, Most remains secret. Some journalists have managed to get into the country and report about it, but only with the regime’s permission. Therefore, the descriptions and images are almost always censored. According to the regime’s official webpage, the DPRK “is a genuine workers’ State in which all people are completely liberated from exploitation and oppression”.
However, Jun Heo, now 26 years old (28 years old in Korean age), doesn’t remember his childhood and adolescence to even come close to that statement, or what his parents and teachers told him to believe: that he leaved in the best country in the world, and he had to be willing to die defending their homeland.
Note from the author: This interview was developed in several parts during April, 2019. It was conducted in english, digitally, through a direct contact with Jun Heo, who later sent more information to back the story.
The opinions and statements expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the Dissidents.org team, Fundación para el Progreso, or the organizations that cooperate with this project. The same is valid for the opinions, statements and actions of the interviewees in other moments and contexts, both in the past and in the future.