Every year, for the birthdays of North Korea’s Kim dynasty founder, Kim Il-sung, and his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, John Choi* would receive a large pack of sweets from his parents. So would all his primary-school peers. However, before unpacking his present, John was told to follow the ritual of bowing to the pictures of Kim Il-sung and his son. This was nothing new for him. At nursery, John and his friends said ‘thank you’ to the Kim family for lunch every day.
Until the age of nine, John was looked after by his parents. In the mid-1990s he found himself homeless after his parents left him and went away. Sleeping rough – on top of buildings and under bridges – he survived through the North Korean four-year famine that started in 1994 and was caused by droughts, floods and the decline in food production. John still remembers many adults and children who collapsed on the streets, and one classmate who became critically ill after eating grass.
John then lived with his grandmother for some time, before he decided to leave all that he had known behind him and to embark upon a journey that would eventually lead him to the United Kingdom, where he attended university.
Having been told throughout his childhood that Christianity was an evil and having held a genuine fear of any foreigner with a cross necklace on their chest, John now wears a little cross himself and talks about his past with a gentle smile.
Speaking to World Watch Monitor, John shared some episodes from his childhood back in North Korea and his vision for the future of his country.
WWM – John, how prominent a part did propaganda play in your education at school in North Korea?
J.Ch. – The history class in the primary school was mainly about the Kim family. Alongside the ‘great deeds’ of Kim Il-sung, we would learn about his talents and discoveries, with tales about how he looked after his father: he kicked away the birds that were disturbing his father’s sleep with their songs. This was a propaganda of loyalty.
When Kim Il-sung died, I cried. The whole school cried real tears. I was so sad that I refused to eat. I thought the world was going to collapse with his death. Then my father said to me: ‘Don’t cry, for now we have a new leader, Kim Jong-il. And because our imperialistic enemies want to invade our country, we have to be loyal to him and defend our nation more strongly’… It’s awful, isn’t it?
We had an anti-Christian education throughout, which involved depicting foreign missionaries as wolves, imperialist enemies who kidnapped children, took out their organs for profit and wanted to invade our country.
We would see a missionary and a cross as one and the same. They didn’t explain about the cross specifically, but missionaries, churches and the cross were put on one line together and represented evil. That evil was the United States, and Christianity was presented as an American religion. Becoming a Christian is a political crime in the North Korean constitution.
When I saw a missionary with a cross on his chest for the first time in China, I was so afraid of him that I thought if I touched him my finger was going to rot.
WWM – If you had a Christian friend…
J.Ch. – That’s not possible!
WWM – Imagine if there was one and their faith became known to their peers, how would that child be treated?
J.Ch. – That wouldn’t be possible at all. Even if my parents were Christian, they wouldn’t tell me. If anyone became known as a Christian, they would disappear overnight.
When I was a child, along with a few hundred people I was forced to watch a public execution of a man who smuggled what we thought was a Bible from China. I was in the front line and saw him being shot three times. I believed he must have done something really horrible, something the government told us not to do. He was said to have committed a political crime and we assumed it had to do with Christianity.
Forcing us to watch it, the regime was telling us this is what would happen to any one of us if we disobeyed. Every time when there was a big wave of people escaping the country, they would do a public execution like that to prevent others from fleeing.
WWM – What did you know about the world outside your country when growing up?
J.Ch. – Not very much. Even books, dramas by writers of other communist countries were not allowed. When I was a little boy, at the beginning of the 1990s, they broadcast Chinese communist propaganda films, but in the mid-1990s they stopped even that.
My generation was completely alienated from the outside world. I read some foreign communist revolutionary books because my father was a history teacher and possessed some. He ordered me not to tell anyone that I read those books. We saw foreign people only on television when a delegation from abroad came to Pyongyang [the capital]. Presenters would say how full of love the guests were for our leader, especially if they had a gift for him.
WWM – Did you have a world map in your class?
J.Ch. – Yes we did. We were told that the world outside North Korea was all about money, with many hungry and homeless people on the streets. Life there was not like in our country, they said, where our government looked after its citizens; that’s why we needed to protect our leaders.
WWM – But then the same government failed to protect its citizens from starvation in the mid-1990s. Did anything change in people’s minds?
J.Ch. – My parents’ generation was looked after by the regime. But when it came to us, although brainwashed, we realised that we needed to look after ourselves, seek food ourselves. Self-management became a strong concept for us on one side, and on the other there was the demand for loyalty to the regime. The two contradict each other but I don’t think loyalty is now more important for people than providing food for themselves. These people can change soon, because they are learning how to survive, how to fight for food. They remain loyal because they have to.
WWM – How do you imagine the future of North Korea with the same regime in power?
J.Ch. – The regime may not collapse but it may change. They refuse to open the door to the outside world because people will find out the truth. The truth is that there is history beyond the 70 years of the Kim dynasty. The words of wisdom that were attributed to Kim Il-sung were taken from the Bible. And it wasn’t the Western countries that started the Korean War in 1950; it was North Korea. When I discovered these things in China, I was shocked. If people realise they are lied to, they are going to react; they will question everything. That’s why that door remains closed. If it doesn’t open in the next 10-20 years and more sanctions are introduced against North Korea, how many people are going to be left there?
WWM – What kind of country would North Korea have to become to make you want to return there?
J.Ch. – It would need to be democratic. Even if the regime remained in power, if a Kim like Gorbachev [the last leader of the Soviet Union] took over and started a perestroika [Gorbachev’s policy of restructuring the Soviet political and economic system], then I’d be willing to go back.