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Freedom Collection

Interviews with Kim Seung-chul

Interviewed December 10, 2023

I was taught that North Korea and the United States are enemies. Ever since the Sherman Ship entered near the water around Pyongyang, North Korea has considered the United States its enemy.

[In 1866, a U.S. merchant ship, the S.S. General Sherman, was attacked and sunk near Pyongyang after it entered the Taedong River without permission and refused to leave. The ship was attempting to establish trading relations with Korea’s isolationist kingdom.]

The ideology that focused solely on Kim Il Sung as [North Korea’s] supreme, historical figure started around 1968 and 1969. It was at that point that he was [presented as] the only figure to have accomplished anything throughout North Korean history.

[Kim Il Sung (1912 – 1994) was the founder and leader of the North Korean state from 1948 until his death in 1994.]

I was the first generation to receive this type of indoctrination. Prior to this, if you look at my elder brother’s textbooks, you would find descriptions of North Korea’s historical heroes, but that was no longer the case with my textbooks.

From middle school to college, we learned about other countries. Because it was a unilateral teaching, there was no conclusion we could reach based on comparison so our concept or understanding of the United States was abstract and vague. Of course South Korea and the United States were always depicted in a negative way within North Korean schools.

But I always had questions about these countries and about capitalism. We were told that capitalism was about the brutal principle of survival of the fittest. This was very abstract education as you can see. So I would often ask myself, “What does capitalism actually look like? In a capitalist country, how do the rich people and the socially exploited people lead their lives?”

Back then, I believed that countries like South Korea would use torture, harassment, and violence. You would also find that people had to work very hard, day and night just to survive.
Once I graduated from college, I started studying Japanese on my own. I would read books written in Japanese. It was then that I learned how capitalism brings about economic development and my perceptions changed.

When magazines reach North Korea, the authorities censor articles that publish South Korean news, but not all articles are caught. I was perusing a technology magazine written in Japanese. I remember reading that in 1988, South Korea’s Hyundai Construction won the bidding for overseas construction that amounted to 1.9 billion US dollars.
I was shocked at this. I kept thinking to myself, “If one private company can accomplish this much, how prosperous could South Korea be?”

In the 1980s, I read about the democratic movement and struggles taking place in South Korea. I was actually able to see video clips of South Korea because North Korea was reporting on the democratic struggles of the South.

We were able to see what South Korean cities and universities looked like. We could see the clothes that university students and demonstrators wore. That also shocked me a great deal because they were wearing very nice clothes. Through all of these experiences, my thoughts and perceptions were changing.