North’s defectors speak on life in a post-Soviet state

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North’s defectors speak on life in a post-Soviet state


Myeong Dmitry,Kim Jong-hun, Choi Mi-ok

Nearly six decades have passed since Kim Jong-hun left his home in Hwanghae Province in North Korea.

Once a prodigy who the Communist country sent to the Soviet Union for a study abroad program, Kim was fated never to return after denouncing Kim Il Sung, then leader and founder of the North.

Landing in Kazakhstan in 1957, the political refugee who formerly worked as a news reporter and movie director, implied he feels a sense of betrayal from Seoul for not “making use out of people like me, who know both countries very well.”

“South Korea doesn’t care about us,” he told a JoongAng Ilbo reporter last month in Almaty, southeast Kazakhstan. “It’s no use beaming propaganda broadcasts or launching balloons [containing anti-North Korea leaflets]. [Seoul’s authority] must research propaganda tactics and design strategies.”

One of the few surviving North Korean political asylum seekers in Kazakhstan today, Kim added that he believes there is not a single person in the South who “genuinely loves the country, or thinks ahead.”

He particularly lamented how the South failed to exhibit leadership when discussing policies against North Korea in the international arena.

Myeong Dmitry, another North Korean political refugee now teaching Korean studies at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty, also spoke on his views concerning the reunification of two Koreas.

The 74-year-old, who once went by the name Myeong Chul-woo, said the peninsula’s division is nothing like the circumstances of Germany.

“The Korean Peninsula isn’t as rich as Germany, and it’s not like there’s a wall between the two countries that will suddenly collapse,” he said. “I look forward to seeing a South Korean factory hire workers from the North. Wouldn’t it be better than employing foreigners? They can at least communicate with one another.”

As the son of Myeong Wol-bong, the first head of the Russian department at Kim Il Sung University, Pyongyang’s most prestigious seat of higher learning, the man added that he vividly remembers seeing Kim Jong-il several times on the street when he was in middle school.

“I remember everyone gathering at Kim Il Sung Square after the 1950-53 Korean War and shouting, ‘Imperialist America must retreat from South Korea!’

Turning against the North’s Hermit Kingdom in 1957, Myeong’s father led his family to Uzbekistan two years later, where Myeong served in the military for three years and studied philosophy at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University.

“Even though I majored in Marxism-Leninism, I naturally opened up to Korean relations,” he said. “For us ethnic Koreans in the post-Soviet states, North Korea was the greatest subject of interest up to the mid-1980s. That changed with the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, when China and the Soviet Union led multinational diplomacy.”

Choi Mi-ok, who heads a Korean education school in Almaty, said her lifelong wish as a teacher is for North and South Korea to “come together under one language before the linguistic differences grow further apart.”

Choi’s father was conscripted by the Japanese government to work on Sakhalin, an island off Russia’s east coast, during the Japanese colonial period in the early 20th century. It was then that she followed him there, and later landed in Kazakhstan.

“I remember one time when I was on Sakhalin, my sister came home from school with black ink dripping off her face,” Choi said. “She said her Japanese teacher painted her face in front of all her classmates for using Korean.”

During her early days living in Kazakhstan, and seeing for herself the non-existent interest in Korean, Choi recalled feeling as if it was her destiny to become a teacher and spread her mother tongue.

“If you want to be a proud Koryo-saram,” she said, referring to ethnic Koreans residing in the former Soviet Union, “you have to know how to write and speak the Korean language.”

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