Category Archives: Kim Jong un

We Hacked North Korea With Balloons and USB Drives

An airborne challenge to Kim Jong Un’s information monopoly

Former North Korean defectors release balloons containing one-dollar banknotes, radios, CDs and leaflets denouncing the North Korean regime near the demilitarized zone in Paju, South Korea, on January 15. (Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji)

PAJU, South Korea — At the base of a mountain almost two miles from the North Korean border, the giant helium balloons slowly float upward, borne by a stiff, cold wind. These are not balloons in the conventional sense—the transparent, cylindrical tubes covered in colorful Korean script are more than 20 feet in length and each carries three large bundles wrapped in plastic. The characters painted on one of the balloons reads, “The regime must fall.”

The launch site is at the confluence of the Imjin and Han Rivers, which form the border with North Korea. From here, it’s possible to see the Potemkin village constructed on the shores across the river. The picturesque agrarian hamlet is really just a series of uninhabited sham structures, which contrast sharply with the bustle and industry of the South Korean side. Using binoculars we can see people “walking” back and forth and pretending to till the land despite below-freezing temperatures.We’re here to hack the North Korean government’s monopoly of information above the 38th parallel on the Korean peninsula. The North Korean dictatorship continues to be one of the most totalitarian regimes on the planet. While other regimes oppress their dissidents and censor the Internet, North Korea has no dissidents and no connection to the outside world. It has no Internet. The Kim family rules with absolute authority, arbitrarily imprisoning or executing anyone who stands in their way. The regime goes even further; not only is the offender imprisoned, but entire generations of his family are also sent to the gulags. The embargo of information into and out of the country has forced human rights groups to be creative in their methods of reaching North Korean citizens.

The balloons rise and drift toward the border dividing democratic South Korea and Kim Jong Un’s totalitarian regime in the north. Each balloon carries a bundle containing DVDs, USBs, transistor radios, and tens of thousands of leaflets printed with information about the world outside North Korea. Once the balloons travel far enough north, a small timer will break open the sturdy plastic bags and shower the contents of the packages over the countryside. The text printed on the leaflets is changed from launch to launch; the leaflets we are using today contain a cartoon depicting Kim Jong Un’s execution of his uncle as well as pro-democracy and human rights literature.

In preparation for Wednesday’s launch, a group of men and women, most defectors themselves, put together the precious cargo the balloons carry. This group is part of an organization called Fighters for a Free North Korea, and their leader is Park Sang Hak, a defector and son of a former North Korean spy who escaped 15 years ago by swimming across the river. Park has since dedicated his life to fighting for freedom in his homeland. That dedication has earned him awards (he received the Human Rights Foundation’s Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent last year) as well as attempts on his life.

In 2011, a North Korean assassin traveled to Seoul and tried to kill Park with a poison needle hidden inside a pen. The South Korean National Intelligence Service found out about the plan to murder Park, whom the Pyongyang regime has designated “Enemy Zero,” and tipped him off before he went to meet the would-be killer.

Park Sang Hak, a North Korean defector and chairman of Fighters for a Free North Korea, releases a helium balloon filled with anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets near the border with North Korea, in 2008. (Reuters/Jo Yong-Hak)

Undaunted, Park continued his efforts to offer support to the countrymen he had left behind. He realized that although the government tightly controlled everything that came into the country on the ground, the sky remained free. Park decided this would be his way of smuggling his message across the border.

This is how we found ourselves at a mountaintop an hour and a half outside of Seoul in 15-degree-Fahrenheit weather. We had been preparing for weeks in secret in order to stay off the South Korean government’s radar, after our previous launch attempt was thwarted by South Korean police forces.

In June of last year, at a different border site, word got out about the effort, which was to be the first time that a foreign NGO had collaborated directly in such an activity. Two days before the anticipated launch date, the North Korean government issued a warning through its propaganda outlet, threatening, “[I]f you so much as haunt [the launch site] with your presence and act as human shields for refugees who have already been sentenced to death, we will kill you.”

We chose to ignore this inflammatory rhetoric, which is typical of the regime, and pressed on. The morning of the launch, however, the North Korean government issued a second warning, this time from the Command of the Korean People’s Army, saying the launch “reminds one of a puppy knowing no fear of a tiger.” This threat was taken so seriously by the South Korean government that its security forces mobilized to stop us.

On the day of the launch, 300 uniformed South Korean policemen swarmed the site, preventing us from achieving our goal. Park attempted to drive to another launch site, but he was stopped and taken to a nearby police station, where he was detained for six hours and then released. The episode underlined how many South Koreans regard the human rights struggle in the North as merely a distraction and an annoyance.

So what do these balloons carry that is dangerous enough to the North Korean government to warrant an attempted assassination and multiple public death threats to an international NGO? All of the goods carried by the balloons are illegal inside North Korea, but the regime consistently names one item in their threats to Park and his group: the pro-democracy leaflets.

The North Korean government dreads subversive information. For decades, the regime has controlled all information entering the country. While the government still has a monopoly over information dissemination within North Korea, cracks are beginning to show. Many North Koreans now have access to smuggled DVDs and USBs loaded with videos. They are seeing the world outside the North, and it doesn’t match up to the dictatorship’s lies and propaganda. Shows such as Desperate Housewives and The Mentalist, and films like Bad Boys, all of which defectors tell us are very popular in the North, provide a wildly different alternative to their daily lives.

Slowly, piercing the information blockade is helping to expose the fallibility of the North Korean state. Kim Jong Un’s government, just like the governments of his father and grandfather before him, is engineered to make North Korean citizens dependent on the state for everything. However, the famine of the 1990s, in which over a million North Koreans starved to death, forced people to depend less on the state for survival. The black market, fueled by smuggling, began to gain momentum.

Smuggling is the only way to bring information and technology to the North Korean people, and it is punishable by death. DVDs, USBs, and even laptops are making their way over the Chinese border into the hands of North Koreans, helped along by NGOs based in South Korea. Some groups engage directly in smuggling activities to provide information and equipment, others use short- and medium-wave radio broadcasts, and Park Sang Hak uses balloons and other creative methods of sending help over the border.

South Koreans and North Korean defectors hold a banner that reads, “Pyongyang citizens living in the South and the North, Let’s unite, break Kim Jong Un’s three generations hereditary regime and move a date up for recovery of Pyongyang.” (Reuters/Lee Jae-Won)

These groups, however, are in the midst of a crisis. Finding support, especially for the more aggressive methods, is difficult within South Korea, as South Koreans fear antagonizing their distant relatives in the North. Until this year, the U.S. government provided support for these groups through the National Endowment for Democracy and the State Department’s DRL programs. The majority of this funding however, has been cut in the last year. A remarkable opportunity now exists, given the funding gap, to build peer-to-peer networks between Korean defectors and worldwide allies willing to stand against despotism. Radio transmission is especially costly, and one group we visited in Seoul won’t be able to afford to produce its programming after March of this year.

These groups struggle in silence as the international press creates a media circus around Dennis Rodman and his “friendship” with Kim Jong Un. His antics feed into the popular perception of the regime as a bizarre place where bad things happen as opposed to one of the world’s cruelest tyrannies, being challenged by a handful of civil society organizations with combined annual budgets totaling no more than $1 million. And the North, with its nuclear hardware, concentration camps, and totalitarian control over its people, is being challenged with freedom of expression and the power of ideas. In the end, we believe ideas will win.

Rogue States and the Arab-Israeli Conflict

In recent days, news about the North Korean and Iranian crises have been driven out of the headlines and off television screens by other events. That’s unfortunate.  Attempts by these countries to acquire nuclear weapons have implications for many places. No country is likely to be more directly impacted than Israel. Let’s start with some history.by Martin Krossel

Early in the first term of his presidency, Bill Clinton declared  that the United States would not allow North Korea acquire nuclear weapons. Shortly after the President made that declaration, the CIA told him that North Korea already had one or two nuclear warheads. Clinton adjusted his policy. He signed onto negotiations first initiated by his predecessor, President Jimmy Carter. Clinton agreed to let North Korea delay for five years the fulfillment of its obligations to the rules of the International Atomic Energy Association and postpone for ten years the dismantling of its known nuclear weapons program.

Shortly after this agreement was finalized, the American Enterprise Institute’s Joshua Muravchik identified and wrote about its flaws.

“The North Koreans can break out of the deal at any time, or perhaps more likely, cheat on it piecemeal and demand new concessions in return for fulfilling prior obligations. Even in the unlikely event that the deal is honored, we have set an ominous precedent by paying a $5-billion bribe (in the form of oil supplies and ‘peaceful’ nuclear reactors) plus diplomatic inducements to a rogue state in exchange for its agreement to cease flagrant violation of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.”

Muravchik turned out to be prophetic. The Clinton administration’s efforts to stop North Korea failed and the George W. Bush administration inherited the issue. In it’s early days, the Bush administration also tried to get tough. In his 2002 State of the Union Speech, the President included North Korea — along with Iran and Iraq — as a member of what he called the “Axis of Evil”. Before “Six Party Talks” on North Korea’s nuclear program in 2003 Bush’s Under Secretary of State, John Boulton, made a speech in Seoul South Korea in which he correctly blamed the nuclear problem on North Korea’s “tyrannical dictator”. But the Bush administration distanced itself from Boulton’s remarks. Boulton was also denied a central role in the talks even though, in theory, he had responsibility for arms proliferation policy .A decade has passed. Ongoing diplomacy has yielded no breakthroughs.

Diplomacy with Iran has been similarly unproductive. According to Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, the Iranian policy of the United States and other Western democracies have been paralyzed by the false assumptions of policy makers.

“There has been abundant deceit — self-deceipt- on the other side as well. Among those self-deceptions: that the intelligence on Iran had been ‘hyped’ by a warmongering Bush administration. That Iran’s nuclear intentions were unknowable. That Iran was using its nuclear card not to build weapons but to seek a grand bargain with which it could normalize its relations with the West. That punishing sanctions would swiftly bring the Iranians to heel. That the targeted assassinations of Iranian scientists could, in tandem with a cyberwarfare campaign achieve decisive results without the risk of air strikes.

But perhaps the greatest of self-deceptions has been the view that Iran is a rational actor that would inevitably turn out to be a ‘responsible’ nuclear power. This argument always suffered from many defects, among them the defect of assuming that rationality is understood in the same way in Tehran as it is in Washington. But no less a problem with the argument is that it takes the stability of the Iranian regime is that it takes the stability of the Iranian regime as its premise. Iran’s leaders may not be ‘suicidal’ but that depends on the lengths of their time horizons. A regime that is planning for the long haul will probably husband its resources. But what if Iran’s leaders  believe their regime has not that long to go?”

Do the Iranian mullahs really believe that their days in power are numbered, as Stephens seems to suggest? Probably not. According to perhaps the world’s foremost authority on antisemitism, Hebrew University’s Robert Wistrich, other regimes in the region rightly have felt threatened by Iran, as opposed to the other way around. Wistrich portrays assertive Iranian mullahs, obsessed with the notion of exporting their revolution. They think, according to Wistrich, this will end in their own messianic triumph — not in any imminent downfall.

“From the outset [Ayatollah] Khomeini’s Islamic Republic had championed the export of the Islamic Revolution to Afghanistan, Lebanon  and Palestine as well as the transformation of ordinary Muslims into jihadi fighters who were carriers of a universal Islamic message. Khomeini always insisted on the interchangeability of the Iranian state and the Islamic Revolution, whose teaching were to spread to every corner of the Muslim world. Even before the hegemonic ambitions of a nuclear-armed Iran began to haunt the sheep of the more moderate Arab  leaders (and especially of Iran’s Gulf neighbors, the Khomeinist revolutionary jihad became a source of alarm in the region. These fears have been exacerbated by the successes of such Iranian proxies as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and by the disintegration of post-Saddam Iraq.

Yet, there could be disastrous consequences resulting from allowing either Iran or North Korea to acquire a nuclear arsenal.

A nuclear North Korea not only threatens democratic South Korea but also Japan, Taiwan and parts of China — including some of its largest cities. Some say that a North Korean nuclear warhead carried on an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile could reach the west coast of the United States.

One shudders to think about how nuclear weapons would empower Iran. Wistrich writes.

“Once in possession of nuclear weapons it would be a deadly not only to Israel and to the Middle East but to virtually all of Europe, and have the ability to severely intimidate the Gulf States and halt the flow of oil to the entire industrialized world including the United States. In seeking Israel’s destruction, the theocratic regime aims to control the Middle East. Its religious fanaticism is reinforced by imperial nationalism and Great Power aspirations with eventual world domination as a distant goal.”

The reluctance to bomb the nuclear facilities of Iran and North Korea are understandable. The same characteristics  that makes these countries threatening also render military action to disarm them dangerous.

North Korea might try to fend off an attack on its nuclear facilities with a counterattack against one of the many large population centers within the range of its missiles. Because China is also North Korea’s main patron. many hope that China could get North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal. However, while China has recently given indications in recent days that it might be willing to co-operate with international efforts to disarm North Korea, any such co-operation is likely to be hesitant. In the 1950′s China sacrificed a million soldiers to install North Korea’s Communist dictatorship. The Korean War is still venerated in China as a great victory against American imperialism. All of this make it questionable that China would ever confront North Korea. The Chinese have had intimate knowledge of North Korea’s nuclear program but they have never shared this knowledge with the United States. A decade ago China’s foreign minister declared that the nuclear issue concerned only North Korea and the United States — one in which China has no interest. Every two years, the Chinese government issues a White Paper that assesses the country’s security environment. Usually American analysts are disappointed by the absence of useful information in these reports. But the 2013 edition, issued in mid-April, did raise some eyebrows. It claims that President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia creates a “volatile security situation”. The report further asserts, “Some country [most analysts think that this refers to the United States] has strengthened its Asia-Pacific alliances, expanded its military presence in the region and frequently makes the situation tenser.” The report also contains some anti-American conspiracy theories that can be found regularly in North Korean propaganda. China may be looking for an excuse to expand its own military influence in Southeast Asia. This further lessens the chances that it would do anything to help disarm North Korea.

 Iran is similarly capable of defending against an attack against its nuclear facilities through the threat of striking out against neighboring countries. In March the country’s Spiritual Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threatened to annihilate Tel Aviv and Haifa if Israel ever attacked Iran. Even if Iran doesn’t follow through on this specific threat, Iran’s Islamic surrogates — Hamas and Hezbollah — could fire missiles at Israelis from Lebanon and Gaza.

Such dangers my explain why, according to Wistrich,

“[Iranian President] Ahmadinejad believes that the West is weak and in retreat; that Iran can provoke the United States with impunity; that Iran will soon have nuclear weapons, irrespective of any sanctions and that Shia Islam is the wave of the future.”

About three years after Wistrich had provided this assessment of Ahmadinejad and the Iranian mullahs, Bret Stephens, last September, wrote the following passage, analyzing the western democracies’ weak-kneed “engagement” of Iran.

“The West has repeatedly set red lines and Tehran has repeatedly transgressed them without consequence. Israel …. continues to threaten [military] action even as its ability to act with decisive effect is increasingly in doubt. The United States, both during the Bush and Obama administrations, has repeatedly signaled its profound ambivalence about Iran’s nuclear bids, insisting they are ‘unacceptable’ while indicating that we are unwilling to pay much  of a price to prevent them by any means necessary

Undoubtedly this explains the Iranian regime’s confidence.Thus Iran’s leaders can pursue their nuclear program with little fear for their survival. But this only makes me think of a more basic question. How is it that  rogue dictatorships have acquired the power to control the fate of millions of civilians living outside of their borders? Diplomats and politicians deserve much of the blame for failing to stop North Korea and Iran. But some of the blame should be shared by many of the writers, intellectuals and activists on the left who profess a concern for human rights and “social justice”.

Both Iran and North Korea have terrible human rights records. On this site, Shmuley Boteach recently wrote an excellent survey of repression in North Korea. At the Weekly Standard website, Joseph A, Bosco, a national security consultant and former Defense Department official, characterized as “monstrous” the regime’s treatment of its own people, He accused it of “condemning millions to privation and death”. Bosco wrote further,

“With the entire country effectively a prison, the government operates scores of gulags where hundreds of thousands face forced labor, torture, rape, forced abortion and death without charge or trial.”

North Korea is probably the most repressive regime on earth.

Part of Iran’s record of human rights violation is well known. Ahmadinejad’s suppression of his political opponents both before and after the rigged 2009 elections was well documented in the international press. However, the press has paid far less attention to the persecution of followers of minority faiths. A UN report issued last March found that Iran had intensified violent crackdowns on Christians and the followers of non-Muslim minority religions. At least 13 Protestants are now being detained because of their faith and more than 300 Christians have been arrested since 2010. The UN report also concluded that Iran’s 350,000 followers of the Baha’i faith have also been the victims of state repression. Dwight Bashir, deputy director for policy at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says, “Over the past year, the Iranian government has stooped to new lows by incarcerating infant children with their Baha’i mothers and more clamping down on Christian converts from Islam.” Ahmad Shaheed, the UN expert on the state of human rights in Iran claims that are currently 110 Baha’is being detained for practicing their faith, including two women who are nursing their children in prison. It’s estimated that another 133 Bahai’s are awaiting to serve their sentences, and that another 268 are awaiting trial. 

Holocaust denial is central to the ideology of the Iranian regime. It is not merely the obsession of Ahmadinejad. In 2006, the regime hosted a two-day conference that featured such luminaries of the Holocaust Denial Movement as Former Klu Klux Klan grand wizard, David Duke, French author Robert Faurisson, and Australian “Holocaust questioner” Gerald Fredrick Tauben. In 2007, The speaker of the Iranian parliament Ali Larijani declared the Holocaust to be an “open question”.

Has the Iranian leadership’s promotion of Holocaust denial diplomatically hurt the country? I’m not sure. James Kirchick of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies writes, “For many in the West, merely raising the point of Iranian Holocaust denial is a bothersome distraction, almost always a provocation of ‘neocons’ or ‘Likudniks’ desperate for a reason to bomb Tehran to smithereens.”

It’s clear that were Iran or North Korea to drop its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons — admittedly unlikely in either instance –much of the rest of the international community would be ready to restore normal relations with that country.Perhaps this is inevitable given how entrenched  these regimes have become. But leaving either regime in power shouldn’t leave anyone happy.

Those who have anointed themselves as the champions of “social justice” have used their support in certain social and political causes to wrap themselves in self-righteousness.Indeed, many of these causes have been noble. But support of noble causes is alone not sufficient for the promotion of social justice. While it’s impossible for anyone to protest every tyrannical government or human rights abuser, a modicum of consistency is required. To me, that means more attention focused and more protests being aimed at the worst regimes.Therefore, it’s hard to understand why North Korea and Iran have received more attention from those who claim to pursue social justice.

True, the North Korean regime is so repressive that the country has been closed off from the rest of the world. Getting information out of North Korea is extremely difficult. Outsiders don’t know if they can effect on the behavior of the regime or the lives of ordinary North Koreans. But isn’t the extreme cruelty of North Korea precisely the reason for more and louder protests?

The latest crisis in North Korea has gotten me to think about the makers of the movie and television series MASH. Through comedy and satire they tried to show that the American military confrontation of North Korea, 60 years ago was a worthless endeavor. However the current crisis dramatically highlights what we could have known for decades. The outcome of the war was very significant for Koreans. The quality of their lives ended up being highly impacted by which side of the armistice line they ended up on.

Even if overlooking Iran’s horrible human rights rights can somehow be justified, shouldn’t its promotion of Holocaust denial be sufficient for its ostracism from the international community? After all, denying the Holocaust is a criminal offense in many countries. When in 2010, one of the most notorious deniers Ernst Zundel was prevented from re-entering his adopted country of Canada after spending 5 years in a German jail, Immigration Minister Vic Toeves said, “The decision reinforced the government of Canada’s position that this country will not be a safe haven for an individual to who poses a risk to Canada’s national security.” It in no way detracts from how loathsome Zundel is to recognize that without the power of a state he can never be as much of threat to anyone’s national security of Canada or any other country than the Islamic mullahs who run Iran.How can those who claim to be committed to social justice be sanguine about leaving in power a regime utterly committed to spreading anti-Semitism and other hatreds? One would think that they would be in the forefront of efforts to rid Iranians of rulers that subscribe to Holocaust denial.

The indignation of “social justice” advocates is selective, and more often than not the target of the indignation is determined by the identity of the offender rather than the seriousness of the offense.Although there are exceptions, its almost predicts which countries will draw their ire and which countries will be ignored. Here’s how a tyrannical dictator can evade scrutiny and censure from the “social justice” community: declare himself to be socialist, anti-American, anti-Zionist or anti-colonialist. Pity anyone who is being persecuted by such a regime. It’s almost certain that their plight won’t be widely publicized outside of their country. However if the country happens to be: the United States, Israel, or portrayed as a cog in the globalized capitalist system it will most certainly be the target of the wrath of these activists and much of the international press.

These days one often hears Israelis making the argument that Israel should never defy international opinion because Israel vitally needs the friendship of other nations. However  the international reputation of particular countries often is not influenced by how they actually behave. Therefore, there is probably little that Israel can do improve its international stature. In any case, Israel, of all countries, shouldn’t be going out of its way to appease the international community. Zionism originally was a response to the powerless of the Jewish people which has exposed them to the whims of the world and left them powerless to defend themselves against any rising tide of antisemitism. With a nation-state of her own Jews would be able to gain control of their own history and destiny, thereby insulating themselves from of vicissitudes of public opinion. Since, as we have seen, world opinion rarely reflects moral considerations, Israelis should not feel guilty about angering its international critics to protect its national security and interests.

North Korea, where the people eat each other

Life inside North Korea’s closed borders is hard to imagine. One of the only insights into how ordinary people live, beyond the official line of the regime, comes from those who have escaped. Two defectors, Chanyang Joo and Yu-sung Kim, who left North Korea in 2011, tell their story.

“I heard that people sold and ate human flesh,” says Chanyang Joo. “I heard they were killing other family’s babies and selling the flesh after burying the head and fingers.”

Ms Joo says she ignored the rumours until the parents-in-law of a man she knew were publicly executed. They were butchers and the crime, people said, was selling human meat.

Rumours like this have surfaced in the testimony of several defectors coming from North Korea. Whether they are true or not – and we may never know – the fact that they circulate and are believed illustrates the level of hunger, deprivation and fear in parts of the country that marked the Great Famine.

Fellow defector Yu-sung Kim heard these rumours too and believes there may be some truth in them. “When I was in university that had happened,” he says. “It’s due to hallucination caused by severe hunger, people don’t even realise the act as murder and eat the flesh. But that is very, very rare.”

The rumours started during the Great Famine, from 1994 to 1998, when grain shortages in China meant food aid was drastically reduced. Sober estimates say that 600,000 to one million people died during the famine – about three to five per cent of the population of the country.

“It was the most destructive famine of the 20th century,” says Marcus Nolan, author of Famine in North Korea. “The idea that people are sufficiently desperate and unhinged is not surprising.”

Chanyang Joo was just a toddler when her family moved from a city to the rural village where she grew up. It was during the famine, when markets closed and transportation failed. Many in the cities died of starvation, she says, but in the countryside her family survived on vegetables and shrubs.

After the famine they were still very deprived. “We couldn’t get any medicine,” she says. “Very rarely some medicine was brought from China. Doctors sometimes performed surgery without anaesthesia. I saw some emergency patients dying.”

Babies in North Korea

But some North Koreans like Yu-sung Kim and his family were entirely unaffected by the famine. His parents earned money by trading illegally with China and South Korea and arranging for separated families to reunite across the Korean border. He grew up in a government-owned high rise apartment, watching movies and playing video games that were smuggled across the border from the South.

As children, both Kim and Joo learned to worship the regime and its founder Kim il Sung. “The first sentence we learn as a child is ‘Great father Kim Il Sung, thank you.’ and ‘Dear leader Kim Jong Il, thank you,'” says Joo.

“We have to thank the leaders for everything. Every school, every classroom, even the train cars have the pictures of leader Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on display.”

From preschool to university this is the most important subject for a young North Korean. “You can fail everything as long as you know about the history of the Kim family,” says Joo.

But she had happy memories too. “Until North Korea’s brainwashing education takes effect, children are children,” she says. “When I was little and unaffected by politics, I had the most fun playing with my friends.”

Though his childhood was privileged and the illegal trading of his parents was overlooked by the regime, Yu-sung Kim and his family knew they had to toe the line when it came to certain rules.

They couldn’t watch any news from outside Korea and any criticism of the regime was forbidden. He could discuss politics with his family but not with anyone else. “There is always a government spy in a group of people more than three,” he says. “You could end up in a political prison camp.”

Joo’s family had first-hand experience of these camps. Her grandfather spent nine years in one. He had criticised the regime while with a group of friends but there was a spy in the group and he was arrested. “It was a simple slip of the tongue,” she says.

He told his grand-daughter of horrifying conditions at the prison camp, of people eating rats and digging grain from animal faeces to survive. He said prisoners were attacked by dogs as punishment and dead bodies were left to rot where they fell.

Detention camp from 1953

Her grandfather’s experience had a profound effect on the entire family, though not in the way the regime intended. At the camp he interacted with prisoners from the elite classes and learnt of the inequality in North Korea and of life outside the country.

“My grandfather had always told us we had to leave for freedom,” says Joo. “He said ‘Dream big’ and that if we wanted to live in the real world, we had to leave.”

“Since I was little, I strongly felt the need to leave. I’ve never touched a computer but I was really curious about them. I loved studying and was good at it so I wanted to learn as much as I wanted in a free country.”

For seven years, her family plotted to leave North Korea. They listened to radio broadcasts from the South. When this came to the attention of the authorities in 2008 it was time to go. Her father left first through China and Laos to the South Korean embassy in Bangkok. He saved to pay brokers to help the rest of the family escape.

Ms Joo was the last to defect and when authorities found out that her father was missing, she was put under investigation. She told them he had died in a fishing accident. “That is common in North Korea,” she says.

She practised swimming and trained physically for her escape. Three years later she crossed the border to China where she was arrested. China doesn’t recognise North Korean refugees and its official policy is to send them back. But defecting is a very serious crime and repatriation means imprisonment, torture or even death. A religious group, which she cannot name, helped release her from jail.

For Yu-sung Kim and his family, the decision to leave North Korea came suddenly. His father’s business came to light in a South Korean newspaper in 2011, fearing the government reaction they fled. They left behind his younger sister who was ill. He later found out that she was told her family had been captured and killed while attempting to escape. She later died in North Korea.

North Korean defectors in Seoul North Korean defectors protest about China’s policy of repatriating defectors

Though he appreciates his freedom Mr Kim says life in Seoul is difficult. He faces prejudice from South Korean society which often considers North Koreans, with their archaic dialect and strange accent, as ignorant and backward.

“In my university when I tell people where I’m from they see me as strange, like an alien from the Moon,” he says.

There are more than 24,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea. When they arrive many lack the basic skills to live and work in a modern society – operating a cash machine, driving a car, using a phone or a computer.

They find it hard to get work and some resort to petty crime which has given the community a bad name. “I sometimes think living in South Korea is fortune and misfortune at the same time,” Mr Kim says.

Chanyang Joo refuses to let prejudice bother her. But she says freedom has its own problems.

“There are too many things to do here and I have to plan my own life and it’s stressful,” she says.

“But when I think about the difficulty of living in a free society, I realise I’m working and getting tired for myself and for my future so I feel happy.”

Chanyang Joo and Yu-sun Kim spoke to World Have Your Say on the BBC World Service. Listen to the programme here.