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Kang Chol-Hwan (center) participates in a coffee and conversation at the George W. Bush Presidential Center on May 8, 2018. (Andrew Kaufmann / George W. Bush Presidential Center)

From Child Prisoner to Freedom Advocate: North Korean Dissident Kang Chol-Hwan

May 18, 2018 15 minute Read by Ioanna Papas
Kang Chol-Hwan lived in a North Korean prison camp from the age of nine to 19. He escaped North Korea in 1992 and has dedicated his life to bringing attention to the horrifying conditions in North Korea.

North Korean dissident and author Kang Chol-Hwan sat down for a Q&A with George W. Bush Institute Deputy Director of Human Freedom Lindsay Lloyd. 

When Kang was nine years old, his grandfather was accused of treason by the North Korean government, and his family was sent to Yodok, North Korea’s most notorious concentration camp. Kang lived in the camp for 10 years, surviving on meager corn rations, rats, and earthworms. He and his family were forced to work in fields and mines and witness public executions of fellow prisoners. In 1992, Kang escaped North Korea and has dedicated his life to bringing attention to the horrifying conditions. He now lives in Seoul, South Korea, where he works as a journalist and leads the North Korea Strategy Center, which works to support the North Korean people. 

Lindsay Lloyd: How is it that a nine-year-old boy ended up in a prison camp in North Korea? And, tell us about your book title, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag”. 

Kang Chol-Hwan: My parents and grandfather were singled out as political criminals, and because of their crimes, I was sent to a prison camp. Before then, in Pyongyang, the young kids used to compete as to who had the largest aquariums in their home. I prided myself in having one of the greatest varieties of fish, and was probably the first political prisoner to bring an aquarium to a prison camp. By the time I arrived at Yodok, only three fish survived. When winter came, our room was so cold the aquarium froze and the three fish died.   

By the time I arrived at Yodok, only three fish survived. When winter came, our room was so cold the aquarium froze and the three fish died.

The prison camps are no different from Nazi concentration camps. The North Korean regime has a very cruel system, which is a combination of Hitler's Nazism and Stalinism. I saw a movie called “Schindler's List” once, although [North Korea's] camps weren't exactly the same, there were many similarities. The purpose of Hitler’s concentration camps was mass extermination. The North Korean prison camps’ purpose is gradual extermination, and to have the prisoners realize their sins. The rations that were given were not enough to sustain a life, and the conditions were sub-human.

LL: You yourself never committed a crime and you were eventually released. Why were you released? 

KCH: The majority of the prison camps are meant for permanent incarceration. Analysts think there are about 200,000 men, women, and children in the camps. However, Yodok is one where you could be set free if certain objectives are met. I was fortunate to be assigned to one of the temporary gulags, but the majority of the people never make it out. 

LL: What did you know about the outside world? 

KCH: In 1985, there were leaflets dropping from the sky. That’s when I first saw pictures of the South Korean president. I realized the South Korean government knew about us. They had a targeted effort to drop the leaflets in Yodok. Later, I saw other things fall from the sky including food, clothing, and medicine. We would pick these up, hide them, and use the supplies to survive. 

But in 1998 there was an agreement made [between North and South Korea], and since then, the South Korean government hasn’t sent this type of leaflet propaganda. Now the way that information is disseminated is through individuals. 

LL: How has information changed North Korea? 

KCH: There are three main principles on which the North Korean regime sustains itself: education, security, and information-blocking systems. Similar to a stool, when you have three legs and one of those legs fails, the other two become meaningless. 

The North Korean regime has an Achilles’ heel, but the international community has never tried to sever it. If you look to [Nicolae] Ceausescu in Romania and the uprising [in 1989] and the liberation that followed, it was really a mass influx of information that changed the regime. The North Korean regime recognizes this. Therefore, their top political priority is to sustain themselves by blocking information. 

After the 1998 [South and North Korean] summit, [for a short time] South Korea stopped the propaganda leaflets, the loud speakers, and the huge digital displays. The same thing is happening again after this [most recent] summit. Peace is not sustainable without freedom. Freedom is not possible unless there is access to information. As long as there is a blockade of information, I don't understand how we will ever be able to realize any type of peace. 

LL: You were listening to foreign radio illegally after you got out of the camp. Was it risky to listen to a foreign broadcast, and how did that inspire you to leave? 

KCH: North Koreans listening to [foreign broadcasts] is against the law, and if you are caught, you are sent back to a concentration camp. At the age of 19 or 20, I had a greater desire to learn about the outside world than I was fearful of being sent back to Yodok. 

Initially, I was terrified to listen to the South Korean radio, but after three days, I couldn't separate myself from it. I was addicted. From a young age, I was told the Korean War was started by the South. As I was listening to the radio, I heard the war was started by the North. That totally unraveled my view of the world. 

From a young age, I was told the Korean War was started by the South. As I was listening to the radio, I heard the war was started by the North. That totally unraveled my view of the world.

The sequence of events [the radio announcer gave] did not support the North Korean argument that South Korea started the war. In that moment, I believed. I let go of my loyalty and attachments to the North Korean system. If the majority of the North Korean people were just given that information and they were to believe it the way I did, the system would not be sustainable. 

LL: You wrote “The Aquariums of Pyongyang” in 2001 and met President George W. Bush in 2005. Can you talk a little bit about that meeting?  

KCH: I got a call from the White House and had no idea what it was about. They said something like, “It will probably be a five-to-10 minute meeting [with President Bush].” I was in a daze, and without much thought, I arrived in Washington and entered the White House. President Bush made me feel comfortable and welcome. All my tensions and nervousness disappeared. 

He has a lot of interest in North Korea and a lot of interest in human rights violations. He was the first person to name North Korea as part of an axis of evil. I believe his actions and the UN [Human Rights Council] Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights report allowed the world to know more about the human rights violations. I believe what he did played a significant role in where we are today. And it wasn't just me. He met many North Korean refugees, giving a lot of North Koreans the hope and strength to fight.  

After meeting President Bush, the world was a different place, most notably because my phone began to ring off the hook. Everyone was calling me, and it changed everything. If you remember who I was, someone who was at the very bottom of society living in sub-human conditions as a prisoner, to meet someone like President Bush, I can only attribute this to the mercy and grace of God.  

If you remember who I was, someone who was at the very bottom of society living in sub-human conditions as a prisoner, to meet someone like President Bush, I can only attribute this to the mercy and grace of God.

LL: The Korean presidents met a few weeks ago, and the American president and Kim Jong-un will meet on June 12. Should we trust North Korea? 

KCH: There is a lot of pressure placed on the North Korean system. It’s a combination of what President Bush started, exposing what was going on in North Korea, and the harshest UN sanctions that have been leveled against any country. There were also threats that President [Donald] Trump would bomb North Korea. That is why North Korea had no option but to seek a different path, or at least explore a different path. I believe if the pressure continued, the North Korean regime would have imploded. 

If we are not able to secure denuclearization and human rights, nothing is going to change. The nuclear weapons allow the prison camps and totalitarian system to continue. Human rights issues are fundamental to this entire dialogue. So, if I were President Trump, I would ask Kim Jong-un, “How many political prison camps do you have? Until you destroy all of them, no further dialogue.”

Until we address this fundamental issue about human rights and the system that allows these abuses to continue, we are not going to get anywhere. All pressure must continue until those two things are secured. 

Until we address this fundamental issue about human rights and the system that allows these abuses to continue, we are not going to get anywhere.

LL: Do you think the North Korean people have any knowledge of these discussions?  

KCH: The North Korean regime is communicating it in a most advantageous manner. For example, when the former [South] Korean President Kim Dae-jung implemented the Sunshine Policy and was reaching out to the North, [the North Korean government] spun that event as the South Koreans coming to surrender. 

LL: Is Kim Jong-un serious about using nuclear weapons? Or is it more a show of strength so he is taken seriously on the world stage? 

KCH: If we were to compare the arms or economic race [between North and South Korea], that race is pretty much over. North Korea can't compete with the South. If there is no economy to prop up its military, there is no way they’re going to win any type of war. They need some other way to compete, and for them, that trump card is their nuclear weapons. 

So, if [Kim Jong-un] abandons the nuclear weapons, what will [he] have left? How [will he] maintain authority and power over the military and the people? 

So, the narrative that is being shared within the North Korean community is [probably] about hiding or limiting the nuclear weapons. It's going to be an information game. How much information will [the outside world] be able to access so that we can uncover these hidden nuclear capacities? 

LL: If the North Korean regime was to implode, what is your vision for the peninsula? 

KCH: I believe the natural course would be for North Korea to be absorbed into the South. But, I think it will depend on what the South Korean government does for the North Korean people. The policies and attitudes displayed will determine direction and speed of change. 

If you look at East and West Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West German government put a priority on the rights and freedoms of the East Germans. So, when the opportunity came, the East Germans were able to vote for unification. Unfortunately, the South Korean government has not had to continue addressing the human rights issues in North Korea. If we continue conversations only with the North Korean government, then the people may feel [they are not the focus]. We need to change who we are talking to and who we make the focus of our negotiations. 

During the recent [North and South Korean] summit, [the leaders] talked a lot about peace, but this peace has nothing to do with the [North Korean] people. How is [peace] going to impact the everyday person living in North Korea? It is someone else's peace— not theirs. So, whether it’s a summit between North and South Korea or between the U.S and North Korea, if human rights is not addressed, it is hypocritical. It’s a farcical peace.  

LL: Besides denuclearization, what are Kim Jong-un’s weaknesses, and what might bring the North Korean regime down? 

KCH: There is no money. When Kim Jong-un’s father was the leader, the North Korean regime always had political funds. With those funds they were able to buy Mercedes-Benzes, Rolexes, and cognac, and they gave [money and gifts] to those loyal to the government. With no more money, there are no more incentives. 

From the outside it may look normal, but if you understand the inner workings, there is great uncertainty. The infrastructure that sustained this regime for so many decades no longer exists. So, when I [look at Kim Jong-un’s] two visits to China, I interpret that as a plea for money. Without money, nothing goes on.

The infrastructure that sustained this regime for so many decades no longer exists. So, when I [look at Kim Jong-un’s] two visits to China, I interpret that as a plea for money. Without money, nothing goes on.


Author

Ioanna Papas
Ioanna Papas

Ioanna Papas is an Editorial Manager for the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

Before joining the Bush Institute Ioanna worked at Golin and strategically supported her client, Texas Instruments, in making a move from traditional public relations to content marketing with a focus on social media influencers. Prior to joining Golin, she provided support and expertise for a number of clients including Dish Network, UT Southwestern, Sabre Technologies, HOLT CAT, Hillwood and Benefitfocus. In these roles, she assisted in media relations, external campaign development and execution, and provided writing, editing and strategic implementation support.

Ioanna graduated from Texas Tech University with a degree in online journalism. After completing multiple internships, one resulting in an article published in the New York Times and winning the Investigative Reporters and Editors student award for investigative reporting, she pursued a journalism career in Beaumont, Texas.

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