North Korea is “one of the darkest places on Earth,” but there are chinks in the wall that the communist dictatorship uses to keep its people isolated.
Exiles in the South are beginning to exploit them by smuggling in DVDs, flash drives and shortwave radios that are floated across the border in helium-filled balloons, members of Congress were told Tuesday.
Defectors from North Korea and human-rights experts painted a harrowing picture of life in the vast prison camps run by the regime. They told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that even in the hermetic, one-party state where listening to foreign broadcasts is a crime and domestic radios are locked on a single frequency, increasing numbers can access information from the outside world.
“North Korea continues to be one of the darkest places on Earth, and we have failed to address the main issue … which is human rights because we have focused instead on the nuclear issue,” said Suzanne K. Scholte of the non-profit Defense Forum Foundation. “This has had tragic results.”
Those results were spelled out by two former prisoners from North Korea’s nightmarish Gulag system of prison labor camps.
Inmates survived on a diet of rats and insects, said dancer Kim Young-soon, who was jailed in 1970 because she knew about the relationship between a fellow dancer and Kim Jong-il, who later succeeded his father as “supreme leader” of the Korean Workers’ Party and the North Korean state.
“My one wish was to eat just one bowl of white rice for one meal,” said Kim Hye-sook , jailed at age 13 in 1975, because her grandfather had decades earlier fled to the South.
Both later escaped and came to South Korea, where they joined the burgeoning movement of exiles from the communist state.
Up to 200,000 people are held in North Korea’s prison camps, according to the testimony of Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. He added that satellite imagery over the past 10 years “indicates a considerable increase in the scale of the camps.”
One of the “crimes” for which North Koreans can be imprisoned is for listening to or watching broadcasts of foreign radio or TV.
Nonetheless, Mr. Scarlatoiu said, surveys of those who had escaped indicated that as many as 30 percent of the population have listened to foreign radio broadcasts, including those from the U.S. funded Radio Free Asia. Among other sources, radios were smuggled in from China, he said.
As many as half a million people in the North now have cellphones, Mr. Scarlatoiu said. The phones cannot receive calls from the South, but callers there can connect to their relatives or friends in the North through Chinese brokers, he told a hearing of the subcommittee on Africa, global health and human rights.
Although internet access is restricted to foreigners and those in Mr. Kim’s inner circle, about 3 percent of the population are thought to have access to personal computers, he said. They use these to watch DVDs - often pirated copies of Hollywood movies or South Korean soap operas.
A North Korean squid fisherman who fled the country said later he had been inspired to leave by watching South Korean soap opera, Mr. Scarlatoiu added,
Ms. Scholte told The Washington Times that one of the things defectors reported was that North Koreans were fascinated by the kitchen appliances portrayed in the soap operas.
“It gives them the chance to see the prosperity in which their South Korean neighbors live,” she said.
Defector Kim Seong-min, founder of Free North Korea Radio, told The Times his organization was smuggling DVDs of western movies into the North with short counterpropaganda films spliced into them.
He said they had produced 4,000 DVDs of the first three Rambo movies intercut with items about North Korea, such as comparisons of its standard of living with other countries.
“We have to support the creative things the defectors themselves are doing like shortwave radio [broadcasts] and these balloon launches,” said Ms. Scholte, referring to the exiles’ efforts to float contraband over the border attached to helium balloons.