What It Was Like to Escape From North Korea

Kang Chol-hwan spent 10 years in a camp for political prisoners. This week, he spoke out on Reddit about what his countrymen know of their plight.

Kang Chol-hwan, who spent 10 years in a North Korean prison camp, has participated through a translator in an "Ask Me Anything," or AMA, session on Reddit. He escaped from the totalitarian country in 1992 and is now a human-rights activist.

"The average North Korean knows that the situation in North Korea is not good," he explained of his countrymen. "Compared to the time of Japanese colonialism and the Korean War, things are worse now. One example I can think of is that during the colonial period under the Japanese, the North Koreans ate the bark of pine trees, but now there isn’t even that to eat. During the Japanese colonial period, people were able to travel and trade freely. Now it is almost impossible. The method of torture has also become more severe since the Japanese colonial period, and people continue to compare the current situation to those times."

In his estimation, North Koreans would be able to integrate themselves into a united Korea more ably than many imagine. "One of the biggest misconceptions I think people have of North Korea is that they are simple and naive," he said. "But I feel that North Koreans as a group of people have gone through a lot of hardship, and their ability to survive in difficult situations are a lot higher that what people think. People think that unification will be a basketcase for North Koreans, but they will definitely be able to manage. People also think North Koreans will have a hard time adjusting to the market economy, but the black market is also growing under the regime’s nose, and people are used to working in this environment."

Later in the session, he noted his own success. "When I crossed the river, I came to a village, and when they served me dinner, I was shocked to see that there was so much food!" he said of his time in China, where several people enabled him to sneak as far as South Korea. "While I was in Dalian, the person looking after me was a person who smuggled snakes into South Korea because it is a delicacy there," he said. "There were so many snakes, and they needed to be looked after. I took care of the snakes in return for accommodation and food. It made me wonder why people thought snakes were a delicacy when in the political prison camps, we ate snakes because we didn’t have anything else to eat. It was a hard concept for me to understand."

Later in South Korea, "when I was buying a toothbrush, there were ten types of toothbrushes. Which one did I have to choose?" he wrote. "Adjusting to South Korean life was not difficult. While there were things I needed to learn again, a capitalist society works on the desires of a human being—being able to move freely, meeting whoever I wanted. I could live in this society following my desires."

There is so much more to his story, including his thoughts on the model North Korea might follow to modernize and why he doesn't want Western governments sending the regime international aid, in the Reddit AMA as well as his book, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, which is now on my reading list. Another fascinating peek inside North Korea is outlined in Adam Johnson's profile of Kim Jong Il's sushi chef.