“Money is better than Kim Jong-il,” Yoo-Sung Kim argued at his talk, “Shedding Light on the Hermit Kingdom: Testimonies of a North Korean Spy,” which was given in Korean and translated by two Yale students.
Kim, who was born in North Korea, described his experiences as a prisoner in North Korea in the 1990s under the current dictatorial regime and his subsequent escape to South Korea, speaking to a crowd of about 60 people at a Pierson College Master’s Tea in Linsly-Chittenden Hall Monday. He said he thinks North Korea must reform its economy, establish a free-market system and move away from food rationing policies. Despite a few things lost in translation, audience members said the talk was both informative and moving.
“If you give people the free market system, as opposed to the rationing system,” Kim said. “People can thrive.”
Kim said allowing the free exchange of capital would be more effective than North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s policies in helping the North Korean people to raise their standard of living.
Still, though he supports economic reform, Kim said North Korea’s problems should not be approached from an outsider’s perspective.
“If you don’t abandon your culture or way of thinking, you will not be able to understand the way North Korea works,” he said. “If you approach North Korea with the idea of human rights or democracy, you will never understand.”
Kim, a former North Korean general, said he was framed in 1994 for trading with Japan and endured a year of what he called “brutal” interrogation. After a year of torture, he said, he was put on trial and found guilty. He said he was convicted with minimal evidence, as were many of his fellow inmates.
In prison, he said, he and the other prisoners survived on six spoonfuls of water and 30 grams of rice per day.
“We were lodged like cattle and horses,” he said. “There were 2,000 people in these prisons per year, 600 to 800 of whom died from starvation or illness.”
Even outside of prison, he said, North Korean citizens struggle to feed themselves and their families. In fact, he said, during the early 1990s most North Koreans were forced to find extra-legal ways to support themselves.
Kim said he is skeptical of the current United States policy that distributes free rice to the North Korean government, which he said allows the government to control its citizens. Peace in North Korea will come only when “the U.S. government is more strict on the North Korean government,” Kim said.
But despite the serious subject matter of Kim’s talk, a few errors in translation provided some comic relief. At one point, Kim mentioned “little kids who beg for food,” which the students translated as “prostitutes,” resulting in soft chuckles from the Korean speakers in the audience.
Yale Thi[NK], a group that raises money for North Korean refugees and holds events raising awareness about North Korean political issues, co-hosted the talk. Arin Kim ’12, a member of Thi[NK] and co-moderator of the talk, said Kim’s visit was a rare and important opportunity.
“North Korean refugees are usually not high ranking,” she said. “The well-off citizens tend to choose not to escape and thus cannot give us inside information like Mr. Kim.”
Alexa Chu ’11 said she was impressed by Kim’s personal experience and vivid memories, and was struck by “the inability of citizens to have an opinion or even physical reaction contrary to what the North Korean government deemed acceptable.”
After the hour-and-a-half-long talk, Kim was finally asked what everyone was thinking: “In what capacity were you a spy?” an audience member wondered.
He had not yet mentioned his work for South Korea as a spy, which had appeared on posters as the subject of the talk. Upon hearing this question, Kim chuckled and took a sip of water. He told the audience he worked as a spy from 2004 to 2007 but did not provide further details.
Kim now lives in South Korea with his wife and children. He visited Yale on his way to speak to Congress about problems in North Korea.