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Interview

North Korean defector takes contrarian stance against bashing Kim

Hong Kang-cheol's message resonates as Seoul scraps permits of anti-North groups

Hong Kang-cheol, who arrived in South Korea in 2013, warns that Kim Jong Un's "god" status in North Korea means citizens see criticism of the leader as an attack on their beliefs. (Photo by Steven Borowiec)

SEOUL -- Hong Kang-cheol's first moment of shock came shortly after arriving in South Korea, while staying in a government-run facility for North Korean defectors.

Before a meal, staff told him that he and the other defectors were not permitted to serve themselves food, but could only eat portions prepared for them. When he asked why, the staff told him it was because if left to choose, the North Koreans would take huge portions for themselves and not leave enough for the others.

This did not jibe with his memories of his homeland. "In North Korea, even if we didn't have enough food, if a guest showed up, we would water down our soup so that we could share with them," Hong said. "We would never let someone else go hungry. It's like they thought we had no conscience."

The experience motivated him to help South Koreans more accurately understand the land he came from, by speaking out about his life story and pushing back against the rumors about North Korea that appear in the media. In the years since his arrival in 2013, Hong has crafted a public persona that makes him rare among North Korean defectors, in that he refrains from harsh criticism of his homeland's ruling regime.

Hong made headlines in recent weeks when he joined a chorus calling on groups of defectors and activists to call off plans to launch balloons filled with propaganda leaflets across South Korea's border with North Korea.

At a press conference at South Korea's National Assembly, Hong and other like-minded defectors accused the leaflet launchers of risking war between the Koreas and endangering South Koreans who live near the border.

In June, North Korea blamed the leaflet launches, and the South Korean government's failure to prevent them, when it blew up an inter-Korea liaison office near its border with South Korea, effectively signaling an end to two years of rapprochement with the South.

North Korea destroys its joint liaison office with the South in the border down of Kaesong on June 16, in this photo supplied by Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency.   © Reuters

This week, South Korea's government decided to cancel the official registrations of the two main groups behind the launches, Fighters for a Free North Korea and Kuensaem, an escalation of efforts to silence stridently anti-North Korea voices.

With their permits revoked, the groups will be ineligible for any form of government support, and monetary contributions to the groups will no longer be tax-deductible for donors.

The groups that launch the balloons argue they are presenting regular North Koreans with information they could not get anywhere else that punctures the myths of North Korea's leadership. Hong feels the information contained in the balloons does no good.

"People in North Korea already know about capitalism, they already know that South Korea is much richer. They're not deprived of information like in the past," Hong told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview at a Seoul restaurant.

"In North Korea they think of Kim Jong Un like a god," he added. "You can't insult someone's god and expect that they're going to be convinced that you're right. They're going to interpret your action as an attack on their beliefs."

Hong, 47, grew up in Musan, a town on the Tumen River across from China. He made a living leveraging local connections to organize the defections of North Koreans into China and on to South Korea, and taking a cut of the fees the departing defectors paid.

He says he never felt any particular desire to leave North Korea, but decided to flee when an associate of his became the subject of a police investigation and Hong feared he could be dragged down with him.

Upon arriving in Seoul, he faced a different kind of crisis when he was accused of being a North Korean spy by South Korea's National Intelligence Service, the country's main spy agency. He was found innocent in 2016.

Hong says he is still angry over the incident. He feels that, under pressure to justify its own existence, the spy agency falsely accused him and other defectors to create the impression that South Korea was vulnerable to North Korean sleeper cells.

The case was part of his inspiration to start a civic group and a YouTube channel, hoping to disseminate what he considers accurate depictions of North Korea. Recent posts on his channel include videos about North Korea's unique wedding culture, and how North Koreans solve social conflict without resorting to outward shows of defiance.

A leaflet denouncing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is pictured in 2016 near the demilitarized zone.   © Reuters

Hong's growing public profile may reflect subtle shifts in South Korea's defector community away from harsh public criticism of the North. "Many of the younger defectors seem to be more progressive than the ones who came before them. There are a few vocal defectors on social media who are against balloon launches, but I think they are in the minority," said Hyun S. Song, an activist based in Washington who works with defectors in the U.S. and South Korea.

Also, the left-leaning administration of President Moon Jae-in has made efforts to encourage rapprochement with the North, which could incentivize activists to take a softer tone.

"In the past, it was possible to get support for activism toward North Korean human rights and democratization. But under the current administration, support has been going to groups whose mandate is 'peace' or inter-Korean exchange," said Hubert Younghwan Lee, executive director of the Transitional Justice Working Group.

Hong says his goal is to find a middle ground between South Korea's progressive and conservative camps, with his only loyalty being to truth telling. He maintains that he has no affiliation with any political party.

At the same time, he is in favor of the government's efforts to stop the balloon launches, arguing that the two Koreas need compassion to solve their decades of antagonism.

"If there was a couple who weren't getting along, would they solve their problems by complaining about what they dislike most about each other? Of course not," Hong said.

"They'd focus on the good parts of each other's personalities."

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