An Interview with North Korean Defector Ji Seong-ho

January 6, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: North KoreaDonald TrumpPoliticsWarDiplomacy

An Interview with North Korean Defector Ji Seong-ho

"We have seen young people from the South and North come together as friends, with mutual respect and acceptance, and without hesitation, in order to solve North Korea’s human-rights issues."

What is a common misunderstanding that South Koreans have about North Koreans?

South Koreans have the so-called “Hurry Hurry” culture, or a culture of speed. As such, South Koreans tend to forget the past just as quickly. Recently, Hyun Jeong-eun, the chairwoman of Hyundai Group, visited Pyongyang and expressed her desire to resume the tours of Mount Kumgang. In the same statement, she elaborated that the resumption of tours is something her heart desires, while lamenting that it is a shame the inter-Korean exchange was cut off for the decade due to reasons including the recent international sanctions.

However, looking back on reasons behind the suspension of interaction between the North and South, one major incident stands out. At the time, a South Korean woman on a Mount Kumgang tour was shot and killed while on a walk by a North Korean soldier. It was a killing of a civilian. She returned as a corpse, and the tours stopped. A South Korean—our citizen—returned dead; we should have received not only reparations, but also a promise that there will be no recurrence. However, far from promises made, there was not even a single word from the Korean People’s Army regarding the incident. North Korea’s silence made it impossible to continue the tours, which were designed for South Korean civilians. This is an incident that cannot be forgotten. The inter-Korean exchange in no way ceased because of the sanctions from the international society.

In addition, North Korea brutally murdered our soldiers in the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan and killed many civilians during the bombardment of Yeonpyeong. However, so many South Koreans fail to consider the past and mistakenly link Pyongyang’s gestures and public relations moves to the imminent unification of the peninsula. Of course, opinions can vary as each individual decides whether inter-Korean exchange and cooperation or national security is more important. However, discerning North Korea’s true intentions is the most important. We must objectively judge the Pyongyang regime while remembering the past.

What is a common misunderstanding the United States has about North Korea?

I believe Americans are objectively aware of the brutal reality of North Korean human-rights situation. However, they must know that the wishes of the North Korean regime can differ from that of the North Korean people. In other words, there is a need to separate the regime’s mentality from the people’s mentality. North Koreans submit to the regime because they want to survive. They are not voluntarily enduring the repression or supporting the dictatorship. An increasing number of North Koreans are starting to think differently. This is largely due to organizations, such as Humans Rights Foundation, that provide information to North Korea in order to change their thinking. For instance, when President Moon Jae-in visited North Korea, many North Korean people lined the streets and passionately welcomed him. Yet, we must take this with a grain of salt, as the people’s behavior easily could have been different from their thoughts. We cannot sit idly by when it comes to human rights. We will continue working to awaken the North Korean people’s consciousness and to rescue them, ushering changes that will surprise the world.

John Dale Grover is an assistant managing editor at the National Interest. He is also a fellow at Defense Priorities and a writer with Young Voices.

This interview was translated by Josh Kim and Shinhee Kang.

Joon Soo Kim completed his MA in international cooperation at Yonsei University. He has worked at the Republic of Korea National Assembly and the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. His current research focuses on academic and security cooperation between Korea and Japan.


Shinhee Kang is a graduate of Bowdoin College, where she was a Bowdoin Faculty Scholar and Mellon Humanities Fellow. She has worked as a research assistant, marketing assistant, content writer and copy editor.

Image: Reuters