Whether they originate from Sudan, Afghanistan, or North Korea, refugees are a vital source of information regarding the present state of conditions inside of their countries of origin. In those countries where hostile conditions render field and ground work dangerous and impossible, refugees are a reliable and essential source of up-to-date news. Recently, I had the chance to interview a defector who had recently crossed back into North Korea for the first time after leaving his home in the North over two years ago. The following are observations made from his recent trip back to his home in North Hamgyong Province.
- Open Dissent
Although not entirely unheard of, open dissension of the Kim Jong-il regime was not common, as such an action constitutes as a major political felony with severe consequences. However, open ridicule and criticism of Kim Jong-un about the elaborate display of pomp and circumstance he made of inviting NBA Hall-of-Famer Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang could be heard in the provinces from disturbed citizens who are perpetually hungry from a lack of food. My defector friend reported that many have been resorting to suicide in order to end their own misery.
- Civilian Drills
One piece of information that I was particularly shocked to learn was that North Korean citizens are actively preparing for war. Bomb raid drills are a regular practice in the provinces. People are required to pack-up their necessities and find refuge and shelter deep in the mountains. For three days they must remain hidden in the mountains and are not allowed to return to their homes. Some particularly nefarious individuals make good use of this opportunity to break into the empty, unguarded homes and steal valuables.
- Currency Devaluation
The purchasing power of the North Korean Won has depreciated so much that, in the less crude words of my defector friend, “the only thing it’s good for is wiping yourself after a visit to the bathroom.” In the unofficial North Korean markets, the only ‘legal ’tender used for purchasing is Chinese RMB and… US Dollars, who knew? North Korean money has so little value that 5,000 won—the largest note—will buy a meager 2 kilograms of rice. For those of you who neither eat nor cook rice on a daily basis, that’s about 3 days’ worth of rice for one person. A warning for those of you who attempt to buy anything in the markets of North Korea with the local currency: prepared to be mocked and laughed at.
- Religious Persecution
Some things just don’t change after two, ten, twenty or even fifty years later; religious freedom continues to be heavily suppressed in the North. Upon returning to his home in North Korea, my defector friend was met with the tragic news that his uncle had been incarcerated for his religious beliefs. A firm and avid Christian, his uncle had spent the last few years evangelizing to members of his large family. However, one day he ‘over-stepped’ that boundary and was reported to the police when he began to share his beliefs to people outside of the family. He was tortured and interrogated in the prison facilities reserved for the most ‘heinous’ criminals until he confessed his crime: being a Christian. He lasted just 8 months before he succumbed to his treacherous conditions and deteriorating health.
With the nation of North Korea still in the very early phases of its leadership transition, conditions under Kim Jong-un’s regime can, and probably will change at a significantly faster rate than what has been recorded in the past. Defectors, refugees and those who cross back and forth into China are a reliable and valuable source of information about the present state of condition in the ever-changing North Korea. Their observations, testimonies and opinions provide a good basis for us to determine the nature of society and activity in the totalitarian state.