Coming of Age in North Korea

A man who served the regime recounts his efforts to bring it down.

Mike Segar / Reuters

The theory of Jung Gwang Il’s work is essentially this: Tiny packets of information just might bring an end to decades of tyranny in his homeland. From his base in South Korea, he sends USB drives, SD cards, and other devices—loaded with Hollywood movies, South Korean television shows, and testimonials from North Korean defectors—across North Korea’s borders. His weapons against North Korea’s repressive, nuclear-armed regime are Skyfall and South Korean soaps. His battlefield is a country with no free press, virtually no internet (there’s an intranet), and minimal relations with much of the planet. Jung’s mission, in other words, is to funnel fragments of the outside world into the most information-starved nation on earth—and to thereby undermine a government for which he was once willing to sacrifice his life.

Jung runs No Chain, one of several defector-led organizations trying to pump data into North Korea through helium balloons, human smugglers, and even helicopter drones. The idea is that the contraband flash drives and memory cards will then make their way to North Korea’s black market, where they can be sold and plugged into a computer or the Chinese-made portable media player known as a “notel.” By some rough estimates, 10 percent of North Korean households have a computer at home, and up to half of urban households own a notel.

Over the course of the last few months, in conversations with Jung at the Human Rights Foundation’s Oslo Freedom Forum and in Washington, D.C., I’ve asked the 53-year-old activist many questions in hopes of answering only one: Why has he decided to do what he does? What I’ve come to understand is that the trajectory of Jung’s life as he relayed it to me—from his immigration to North Korea as a child to his military service as a young man to his nightmarish ordeals as a political prisoner—is, at its core, a story about the power of information.

With all the focus on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and various provocations, people don’t always recognize “how powerful information can be,” Jung told me through his translator and No Chain colleague, Henry Song. Information conveys “that there is a choice” about how to live one’s life and organize society. Jung argues that it’s this information, this choice, that Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s 32-year-old leader, fears most.

“In recent memory, we’ve had the Jasmine Revolution [in Tunisia], and the Arab Spring,” Jung said. “How come none of that is happening in North Korea? The reason is simple: Because the country’s such a closed-off country, information-wise. People don’t know that the situation they’re in is truly a terrible one.”

“We want to break that ignorance,” he added.

* * *

Jung fled to North Korea before he fled from it. He was born in 1963 in the Chinese city of Yanji, which is near the North Korean border and has a large ethnic Korean population. Like many Koreans, his grandparents had moved to China in the 1930s to escape Japanese rule in Korea. But hardship soon followed the family to China. Jung’s father, who fought for the Chinese during the Korean War and later worked as a teacher, attracted the scrutiny of Chinese authorities by urging Koreans in China to study Korean history. In 1967, as Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution targeted intellectuals and minority groups, Jung’s father was branded a North Korean spy and arrested. Two years later, Jung’s mother crossed into North Korea with her four children. Jung was seven years old. Mao’s suppression of information is what brought Jung to North Korea in the first place.

Initially, North Korea seemed like a land of abundance compared with China, where Jung often went hungry. The government was welcoming to Koreans coming from China, and food was relatively plentiful. Jung described his early years in the city of Hoeryong, near the Chinese border, as “trouble-free.” At school, he received a free education, a free school uniform, and gifts during national holidays. “I just remember feeling very grateful to the dear leader, Kim Il Sung at that time,” he said. In the classroom, he imbibed propaganda about the benevolence of Kim Il Sung, who had founded the country in 1948. But he also remembers learning standard subjects: science, arithmetic, even English.

The tendrils of North Korea’s totalitarian state were present, if imperceptible to Jung at the time. Every Saturday, he recalled, his teacher would lead “self-criticism” sessions where each student was expected to discuss his or her failings over the past week, and to point out the shortcomings of another student. If you couldn’t find reason to criticize a peer, that meant you’d failed again. “From the first day of [elementary] school you are basically brainwashed and propagandized into monitoring one another and reporting anything wrong to the authorities,” Jung said.

I asked whether, in school or at home or when playing with friends, he had ever heard criticism of the North Korean system. “None whatsoever. Something like that would have been impossible,” Jung told me.

Did he think every country was like North Korea? “Yes, that’s what I thought. Because we weren’t allowed to see anything else.” Did he believe in communism and Kim Il Sung’s ideology of juche, or individual and national self-reliance? “We didn’t have the luxury of thinking anything else.”

A classroom in North Korea (Reuters / KCNA)

In 1979, Jung began his compulsory military service, spending 10 years in an artillery unit near the border with South Korea. Did he hear criticism of North Korea then—when soldiers were palling around in the barracks? “The soldiers don’t even think such thoughts,” Jung told me. “I never heard it. I never discussed it.” Again, he used the word “impossible.” What, in his view at the time, was he risking his life for? The dear leader.

The outside world began to intrude more than it had before. But initially, Jung weighed it against the world he’d known up to that point, and found the outside world wanting. It was in the military that he first saw a leaflet dropped by the South Korean government and first heard a South Korean radio broadcast. Jung wasn’t impressed with what he saw and heard; in the 1970s, North Korea’s economy was actually stronger than South Korea’s, and Jung knew it. (Today, South Korea’s central bank estimates that per-capita income in South Korea is 22 times that of North Korea.)

When I asked Jung whether his disillusionment with North Korea came gradually or abruptly, he said the latter. “I would say it’s a sudden, overnight change in perception,” he responded. “Because when I came to China to work [as a businessman after the military], that’s when I was exposed to South Korean dramas.”

But as Jung told his story, his revelation seemed more incremental and cumulative. There was the time, shortly after he was discharged from the military in 1989, that the government granted him a permit to visit China and reunite with his father, who had been released by the Chinese government. “I was greatly shocked ... because this was not the China that I left when I was a young kid,” he told me.

There was the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students, which North Korea hosted with great fanfare in 1989. Attendees at the leftist, Olympics-like event included Americans and other Westerners, who, despite the government’s anti-American propaganda, “left a very positive and lasting impression on the North Korean people,” according to Jung.

There was the propaganda film the state released in the early 1990s showing South Koreans who had sought asylum in the West from Park Chung-hee’s dictatorship of the 1960s and 1970s. “Interviewing these people inadvertently showed scenes of advancement and of just a better life, for example in Germany,” Jung told me. North Koreans “paid attention to the surrounding scenery that was caught on film.”

There was Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994 and the four years of famine that followed, which killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. “People were literally starving to death on the streets,” Jung recalled. “I began to wonder, ‘How much longer can this government, can this country last if things like this continue?’”

And there was Jung’s work at various state-run trading companies in the 1990s, which required him to shuttle between North Korea and China. In China, he began watching South Korean news broadcasts and TV shows, and questioning what he had been taught about the evils of capitalist societies. “I realized that South Korea was so much better off, so advanced and economically developed compared to before,” he said. He was also struck by images of political protests. “I remember thinking, from the North Korean mindset, if anybody were to demonstrate or to protest they should be dressed like beggars and very poor-looking. But I remember realizing that these demonstrators in South Korea, they dressed very well. … Some were wearing jeans, for example. I found that to be just very, very curious and very interesting.”

Jung would also gather around a TV and VCR with his fellow traders and watch American movies like Gone With the Wind and Speed. He came away from watching Titanic “feeling the limits of human love and what love is all about. Because in North Korea, you don’t die for love. You die for the dear leader.” He was also stunned by the special effects: “I thought it was, like, a real ship that was sunk. Only I found out later that it was all Hollywood magic.”

By the late 1990s, he was disconcerted but not yet irredeemably discontent. He was also struggling to make a profit on his trade with Chinese merchants, according to testimony Jung gave the United Nations in 2013, which led him to conduct business directly with South Koreans in China. Jung believes his interest in foreign media and dealings with South Koreans prompted his colleagues to approach North Korean officials with the accusation that Jung was a South Korean spy.

Information gives, and information takes away. One July evening in 1999, security agents arrested Jung in North Korea. They tortured him for nine months, often employing a “pigeon” method in which he was hung, with his hands tied behind his back, so that he couldn’t sit, stand, or sleep. He eventually confessed to being a spy, even though he says he was never involved in espionage; he just couldn’t endure the agony any longer. In April 2000, he was sent to the Yodok political prison camp, in a mountainous part of North Korea.

A North Korean defector’s drawing depicts the kind of “pigeon torture” that Jung Gwang Il says he endured. (Kim Kwang Il / United Nations)

Jung entered a vast forced-labor system whose existence is denied by the North Korean government. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are confined in political prisons and other detention facilities, according to Amnesty International. The Walk Free Foundation recently estimated that North Korea has the world’s highest percentage of people subjected to “modern slavery,” including political prisoners who are shipped off to labor camps and women who are sex trafficked in China and other nearby countries.

In Yodok, Jung encountered emaciated inmates and an orchard with forbidden fruit; if the detainees tried to steal an apple or peach, they would be put in solitary confinement, he told the UN. By day, the prisoners pulled weeds and grew corn. By night they took “political re-education” classes in which the ideological principles of the Kims were “drilled into our heads day in and day out.” During the winter, the prisoners were made to cut down trees and carry logs. Those who died doing the dangerous work were stacked up by the latrine, to be buried in the spring when the ground thawed. Working as a supervisor, Jung was occasionally ordered to punish his fellow captives by denying them meals. Some of those prisoners died of hunger. These days, he sees them in his nightmares.

Jung was released from Yodok in April 2003, after being told the espionage charges against him weren’t valid after all. In his UN testimony, Jung described what happened next: I went to where I used to live, in North Hamgyong, Chongjin city. My family had scattered all over the country. I could not find any of them. My house was gone. I had two daughters. My younger daughter was living with my mother-in-law. There was no way I could live in North Korea.” It took his country leaving him with absolutely nothing for him to leave it. Later that month, he swam across the Tumen River to China, and traveled on to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. He arrived in South Korea a year after escaping North Korea, in April 2004.

* * *

When I asked Jung why, after defecting to South Korea, he had decided to practice his particular brand of activism, he mentioned prison: “I cannot forget the eyes of the inmates that were looking at me as I was being released from Yodok, and as I was walking towards freedom.” His work is a way to free others. But it’s a coping mechanism as well.

He also referred to the awareness he’d gained as a businessman in China. “We can’t wait for change to happen inside North Korea,” he told me. “We want to accelerate the democratization and also, going further, the regime collapse, regime change in North Korea. One way that we feel that we can help is by sending as much outside information as possible so that there would be enough [of a] foundation, enough seeds planted in the North Korean people to cause revolution, to cause change in the country.”

But if each thumb drive and SD card is a revolutionary seed, how does Jung know they’re landing on fertile ground? “For every USB drive I send across, there are perhaps 100 North Koreans who begin to question why they live this way,” Jung told Wired in 2015. How, I asked, can he measure the impact of his efforts with that kind of precision?

“There is, obviously, not a specific method of actually going to North Korea and doing a survey to find out how effective our work is,” he conceded. He assesses his success by what he hears back from sources within the country. He’s heard of graffiti calling for the downfall of the Kim regime, scrawled on the wall of a medical school in Chongjin. Such an act “was unthinkable during the Kim Jong Il or Kim Il Sung era,” he said. He hears of North Korean officials who are supposed to be keeping foreign entertainment out of the country, but who are instead looking to consume it themselves. He hears people in North Korea referring to Kim Jong Un as just “Jong Un,” as though he were “some neighborhood kid,” or “that guy,” without customary honorific titles. “That sense of worshipping, idolatry ... is all gone,” he claims.

In escaping from the most isolated country on earth to the most wired country on earth, Jung has not rectified the information imbalance that has characterized his life. Instead, the imbalance has shifted. He once knew a lot about North Korea and little about the outside world. Now he knows a lot about the world and less about the current state of his country. He sends seeds into a dark expanse, and then must evaluate whether they’ve taken root based on whatever scraps of feedback he can obtain—be it reports of graffiti or revealing omissions of the word “Kim.”

And even if the seeds are taking root, they may not produce the change Jung envisions, or any change at all. As he knows from personal experience, revolutions of the mind often happen slowly—and outside information isn’t always liberating, at least in a physical sense. North Koreans have been jailed and reportedly even executed for possessing foreign media. Even if revolution comes, it might not arrive as an Arab Spring-style uprising, where North Koreans suddenly throw down their notels in disgust and mobilize en masse to demand reforms. It could instead involve elites and government officials, who have the most access to foreign media and the outside world, abandoning Kim Jong Un—a scenario hinted at earlier this month when North Korea’s deputy ambassador to Britain defected to South Korea.

During his UN testimony in 2013, Jung was asked whether he’d ever consider returning to North Korea. “Once in North Korea, I did a lot of things for the regime,” Jung noted. “But I was condemned as a spy. … I was beaten up so bad. ... Just because I sympathized, I related to someone, I was punished.”

“If the regime changes, and if people can live in freedom, I may reconsider,” he said. “But currently, no. Absolutely not. I detest that land.”