From 'Juche' to justice, Kim Young Hwan reveals details of work in China for the first time
Once dubbed the ‘godfather’ of the Juche student movement in South Korea in the 1980s, activist Kim Young Hwan is now better known for leading the human rights campaign for North Koreans. He spent 13 years working covertly in China to plant the seeds of democracy in the North, facing death threats and torture, and for the first time, Kim has shed light on those experiences in a recently published book.
The book entitled “Living again as Gang Cheol” was introduced on December 1 at an event co-hosted by publishing house Zeitgeist and Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights at which Kim is a senior researcher.
“It is true that the democratization of North Korea is to be attained by the people of North Korea, but just like Argentina’s Che Guevara, people from outside can still campaign for it,” Kim said at the event, adding that he and his friends started this work in China due to the obvious impediments in trying to do so from within North Korea.
The number of activists for North Korea’s democratization working in China at the time was at around 20 to 30 people including Kim’s family. For safety purposes, they pretended to be strangers and carried out their respective tasks, always keeping in mind the fact that they could face arrest by China’s security agents or assassination by North Korea’s agents, according to Kim’s book.
“For 13 years in China, I met North Koreans from all ranks, ranging from soldiers, university students, teachers, to public servants. I told them about the real world outside and the hypocrisy behind North Korean society. Out of those people, some were determined to fight for democracy in the North, and they returned home to carry out that fight,” Kim said.
“These activities all took place in China with no source of protection. We had to overcome the threat of being tracked down by Chinese intelligence agents or abduction agents dispatched by the North."
Kim said he cannot disclose how many defectors he had sent back to fight for democracy, but every time he hears they are facing grave threats, he said it breaks his heart. “Whenever I heard that one of them had died from torture in the North after returning, I could not even close my eyes. That’s because anytime I did, I could envision so vividly what kind of torture the person would have gone through and what pain that would have entailed,” he explained.
However, this chapter of Kim’s work came to an end on March 28, 2012, when he and three other activists were arrested by the Liaoning Province arm of the Chinese Ministry of State Security and detained for 114 days before being deported back to the South and banned from China for life.
During the time of their imprisonment, the activists faced continual beatings and torture. “I could smell my own flesh burn while they used electric torture; I thought it would kill me,” Kim recalled.
“Sometimes they would completely drain the life out of me by keeping me up without sleep for seven days, and I felt like I was at the doorstep of death. But they still couldn’t quash my drive for democracy in the North.”
Back in the 1980s, however, Kim was one of the strongest supporters for a very different cause. He was better known for being the evangelist for North Korea’s Juche ideology. Becoming famous among underground circles for his writings about Juche at age 23, Kim worked under the moniker ‘Gang Cheol’ (hard steel). Having lived under the military dictatorship in the South, he was certain socialism was the path that should be taken and even led the largest underground student activist organization at the time.
What started to erode his belief in socialism was the gradual collapse of the Eastern Bloc. “I felt everything from state-ownership, the planned economy, and existing social class theories from Marxism had to be thrown out and rethought from the very fundamentals,” Kim said. “And that’s when I came to think of creating a new ideology based on Juche.”
That thought led to an eventual illicit journey to Pyongyang in 1991 on a submarine dispatched by the North. There, he met with Kim Il Sung twice, but only came to realize the leader was not only the actual creator of Juche as had been touted, he failed to comprehend the fundamentals of the ideology. Skepticism grew, and Kim slowly came to understand Juche was simply a guise to embellish Kim Il Sung’s dictatorship.
What truly acted as a transformative trigger for Kim was the devastating famine that ravaged North Korea in the mid 1990s. The number of deaths wrought by the famine is disputed, but Hwang Jang Yop, a former Korean Workers' Party secretary – and highest ranking official ever to defect to the South – stated that according to internal North Korean documents, around 3 million people died as a result of starvation.
“When I heard about the egregious human rights violations in the North from defectors in the late 90s, I simply couldn’t believe it. But having heard about it twice, three times, and then four times over, I knew it was the truth,” Kim explained.
“I had lived for nearly a decade as a so-called activist and revolutionist, and I told myself if there was any truth to that existence, I cannot turn a blind eye on the North Korean people who are suffering from these brutal violations.”
Kim has since then been at the forefront of the human rights movement for North Koreans and works on multiple campaigns both home and abroad to raise awareness about the situation across the border.
The event for his book, which highlights some of his most audacious activities and struggles on the ground, brought together some 200 people including human rights activists, politicians, and members of the public.