Former foes unite against Pyongyang’s rule

In a twist of fate, defected North Korean prison guard and former inmate join hands to create change.

Former prison guard Ahn Myeong Chul is working to bring about change in North Korea [Reuters]

Seoul, South Korea – One was a North Korean political prisoner, the other a prison camp guard. Now in South Korea, the two defectors are working together to bring about change to the fearful regime they fled.

 Inside Story – North Korea : Challenges of a ‘pariah state’

Kang Chol Hwan, 46, is perhaps the most famous North Korean defector in South Korea.

His memoir, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, was the first personal account of the North Korean gulag to win international recognition. He was even invited to meet then-president George W Bush to discuss his experience.  

Born into a well-connected Pyongyang family, Kang’s fortunes plunged when he was still a child, and his grandfather was accused of treason.

On North Korea’s notorious principle of “joint responsibility”, he and his family were dispatched to the Yodok political prison camp, where inmates suffered starvation, violence and other abuse.

After a decade, Kang was released. He defected, reaching South Korea in 1994. In 1995, in the capital Seoul, he was invited to meet one of his former tormentors.

“Like in the Nazi concentration camps, sometimes people are forced to do things that they don’t want to do under intense situations,” Kang said. “I felt it was not his fault. I did not see him as someone I needed to distance myself from.”

Ahn Myeong Chul, 46, was from a well-connected North Korean family as well. Considered politically reliable, he was assigned as a guard in the cruelest segment of the penal system: the political prison camps.


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“I was trained and brainwashed that prisoners in the camps were evil, so I used taekwondo and other violence [against them],” he said.

“The relation between prisoners and camp guards is like between slave and owner, but slaves in the past were freer – they could at least have food. So camp guards had power over their lives.”

But after his father criticized the regime, Ahn’s entire family was sentenced to incarceration – and Ahn knew how precarious life was on the other side of the fence.

“I knew the reality,” he said. “I had to escape.”

He defected south in 1994 – where he met Kang.

The meeting

“The person I really feared to meet in South Korea was Kang, as he had been a prisoner,” Ahn recalled. “A journalist asked if I wanted to meet him and I said ‘yes’. But I was afraid – I was ready to be beaten by him.”

Kang, too, was tense.  “It would be a lie to say there was no distance between us at first,” Kang said. “But I needed to be rational.”

Ahn was taken aback by Kang’s mien. “He smiled, shook hands and we became very good friends,” he recalled.

Despite Ahn’s admission that he used violence against inmates, Kang said camp guards, too, are victims of a brutal system and he is convinced the world needs to know about the gulag from the perspective of both perpetrators and victims.

“While victims are great witness sources, the people who managed them are also great sources of information,” he said.

Today, the two men lead separate NGOs, staffed by young volunteers, that share a cramped office in Seoul’s media district.

Courting the ICC

Ahn heads “North Korea Watch,” which gathers testimonies from regime victims. It recently provided a wealth of materials and interview subjects to a UN Commission of Enquiry, which on 22 December placed Pyongyang’s human rights abuses before the UN Security Council for discussion.


Kang Chol Hwan met former US president George W Bush after the publication of his book [Getty Images]

The UN General Assembly has urged the Security Council to refer Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

“Our big goal is to send the dictator and perpetrator of human rights violations to the ICC,” Ahn said.

North Korea has reacted furiously, and pundits suspect China or Russia would veto any such move. 

But even the process is a victory, Ahn reckoned. 

“Even if it is not adopted in the [UN] Security Council, at least we have let the world know about human rights violations in North Korea that are crimes against humanity.”

Smuggling information

Kang’s organisation, North Korea Strategy Center, educates defectors and sends information north via USB drives. 

“Inflow of information can change a whole society,” he said.  

The USBs are pre-loaded with Wikipedia pages containing information about the outside world, as well as Hollywood movies and South Korean dramas.

And appropriate hardware is in place, Kang revealed. North Korean radios are pre-set to official stations and DVDs are risky to watch – when authorities conduct sweeps to find foreign media, they cut the electricity supply to buildings, leaving DVDs stuck in players.

But USB drives, which can be fitted into the ports of Chinese TVs distributed inside North Korea, are easy to extract. Their small size eases their smuggling across the China border and trading in the unofficial private markets flourishing across the former communist state.

Kang estimated about 20 percent of North Koreans regularly watch smuggled content. “If we can increase this to 40 percent, we can bring about change,” he said.

Former prison guard Ahn Myeong Chul says propaganda balloons are ineffective for instigating change in the North [EPA]

Both Kang and Ahn frown upon other North Korean defector-staffed groups that float balloons carrying anti-regime propaganda across the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) into North Korea.

“Criticizing the regime is not really that helpful,” Ahn said. 

“Just showing them the reality of South Korea and the outside world, not killing the dictator – people don’t like that kind of aggressive stuff.”

The balloons “are used in such a politicized manner, besides, the North Korean military watches them and gets rid of them wherever they land”, Kang added.

Kang said although Pyongyang politics remains ossified, North Korea’s economy has altered drastically and social change is under way because of eroded trust in the government. 

Citing failed currency reforms in 2009, which wiped out many people’s savings and left them “betrayed”, Kang said, “People now are disappointed; people no longer trust the regime.”

But for Ahn, the former guard, his activities are not simply about changing North Korea – they are about helping him recover his humanity.

“I feel guilty about what I did in the past, but it was not my intention – I was assigned,” he said. “Right now I feel very sorry … that is why I am doing these activities.”

Source: Al Jazeera