WASHINGTON — As a former North Korean military officer marked for execution, Kim Yong-Hwa says he knows all too well the tribulations facing the thousands of defectors on the run for their lives from the repressive Kim regime of North Korea.
The founder of the North Korean Refugees Human Rights Association, now in his mid-60s, spent over nine years imprisoned in three different countries during his decade-plus journey to true freedom.
The journey that began with the intention of committing suicide after being accused of disloyalty to an authoritarian regime that he loved so much took a much different route than Kim initially anticipated.
Instead of going to China and shooting himself in a spot where he could only hope his body would not be found, Kim told The Christian Post that he ultimately discovered the truth that the Kim regime kept hidden from North Koreans. From that point, Kim was inspired to live on to tell his story.
Through his journey, Kim discovered the Gospel of Jesus Christ and today runs a South Korean-based ministry that helps other North Korean defectors facing a similar situation in China find their way to safety.
Kim is one of over 32,000 North Korean defectors who has successfully made the treacherous journey through China and other Asian nations to South Korea since the end of the Korean war in 1953.
But there are an estimated 230,000 North Korean defectors wandering around China who are searching for safety and still at risk of being arrested and repatriated to North Korea, where they could face execution or life in labor camps for the crime of defection.
The road to South Korea, where many North Korean defectors ultimately desire to seek refuge, is not easy.
“Let there be no such tragedy as I experienced [for] anyone else,” Kim told CP while he was in Washington, D.C., for last week’s North Korea Freedom Week.
Accused of disloyalty
In a 40-minute sit-down interview through a translator, Kim admitted that at one point in his life, his love for North Korea’s first leader, Kim Il-Sung, and the communist regime was above and beyond his love for God.
“I thought that If Kim Il-Sung lives no more, I would probably die,” he explained. “I would even die for him. That would be happiness and joy. When there is no Jesus in that nation officially, then he was higher than Jesus back then to me.”
Kim worked until 1981 as a member of the Korean People's Army in charge of managing vehicles. But he switched in 1981 to become a member of a state security service at the Railway Safety Bureau.
At that job, Kim was in charge of the second military train, which operated under Kim Il-Sung’s family and the Worker’s Party.
But thanks to an aging facility, a military train coming from Russia to North Korea tipped over in July 1988.
Because of the incident, the North Korean regime labeled Kim as “disloyal.”
“Disloyalty had nothing to do with the train accident,” Kim asserted nearly 31 years later. “Giving me blame, I was to be executed.”
Kim was tipped off by a friend about his pending execution. Kim felt betrayed and decided the best thing for him to do is go to China and kill himself in order to protect his family.
“With the decision of the North Korean regime, there is no way you can avoid that once the decision has been made,” Kim explained. “Even if you escape, that is also considered being a traitor. Also, committing suicide is also being disloyal (which could result in the persecution of family members). So I really wanted to go to a place where no one could see me because I wanted to shoot myself.”
Kim said that in late July 1988, he crossed over the Amnok River with a friend into China. But instead of following through with the plan to kill himself, Kim said that he heard a South Korean radio broadcast that changed the course of his life entirely.
He overheard a broadcast that Korean-Chinese man was listening to. It was a broadcast in which the high-profile defection case of North Korean Man-chul Kim's family to South Korea was discussed.
As a state security officer, Kim had access to a special periodical for security officials. The newspaper claimed before Kim defected that the boat that Man-chul Kim and his family escaped on had been shot and sunk by the North Korean military.
“That was on the North Korean news,” he recalled. “So I knew because of that news I read, Man-chul Kim was dead. But because he appears on that broadcast, it is either deception or lies by the South Korean or the North Korean. I was a bit confused.”
Kim said he listened to that broadcast in its entirety and realized that he had been “deceived” by the North Korean regime.
“So, therefore, I wanted to go to Korea and let the truth be known that was in my heart,” he stated.
Kim parted with his friend in China. He recalled walking about 11,000 miles on foot in order to get to Vietnam.
Still having his gun and party ID, Kim went to the South Korean Embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam.
But in the course of crossing into Vietnam, Kim got into a gunfight with police and was put on a “wanted list.” Because of that, he was told by the South Korean Embassy that he could not be helped.
Kim then went to Hai Phong, a coastal harbor city where a commercial vessel from South Korea docked. He was arrested trying to climb secretly into the vessel.
“The North Korean embassy came and checked me and identified me,” said Kim. “There were only three days left until I was repatriated. So I hit the Vietnamese police with a tray of food and then I beat him.”
Kim’s act of violence warranted him a two-year jail sentence in Vietnam. It was during this time, that Kim was exposed to Christianity through an interpreter.
“He was giving me the Bible and I was reading it,” Kim recalled. “Even though I was always alone, I could now at least communicate verbally, murmur to somebody. I was asking God to save me. For a few years, I hadn’t really spoken but that conversation [helped]. Actually, I cursed God a lot too during that time. I was also shouting for help.”
Because of his circumstances, Kim explained that his Christian faith was self-taught in the beginning although he said that he was mentored by a Catholic priest. Kim today maintains an evangelical faith.
After about a year and nine months in a Vietnamese prison, Kim was able to escape before he was set to be repatriated. Kim again went to the South Korean embassy, where he was able to change out of his prison clothes and given a little bit of financial support.
Kim then traveled to Laos but was captured in a casino by police in 1992. He then spent over a year in Laos, he said, before he escaped and went again to China.
In Chengdu, he said, he obtained a boat that he used to sail to South Korea in 1995.
Although he eventually made it to South Korea, he was again imprisoned for three years on allegations that he was a North Korean “spy.”
Kim said that if he had gone to South Korea by ground and been captured that way, he would have been better off. But because he went by boat and comes from North Korea, he was thought to be committing an act of espionage.
After two years in South Korean prison, Kim said he got sick and was eventually bailed out in 1997.
Kim said he filed a lawsuit against the South Korean government for accusing him of being a spy. But Kim dropped the lawsuit after encouragement from then-South Korea president Kim Dae-Jung.
“As soon as the litigation was gone, they came and wanted to arrest me again. So they did not keep their promise,” Kim explained.
Kim eventually migrated to Japan, where the Japanese government was also told that he was an “international spy.”
In Japan, Kim was confined to a prison camp for three years.
“Even though I lived nine years in prison, each country they were [supporters] giving a lot of love and strength that supported me through diverse nations who knew about my case,” Kim said.
“[I want] to give as much as received”
Kim was eventually given Japanese residency but went back to South Korea in 2001. In 2005, he officially launched the North Korean Refugees Human Rights Association.
The association helps North Korean defectors in China make their way to South Korea. The organization also assists North Korean defectors in South Korea with resettlement in South Korea.
“In China, they are living like animals,” Kim said. “Really, like beasts and living as beggars.”
Kim said he was inspired to launch the nonprofit after the death of a female defector in the Gangwon province in South Korea.
Today, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s policy of engagement with the Kim Jong-Un regime has led to difficulties for North Korean defectors coming to South Korea.
As Robert King of the Center for Strategic and International Studies pointed out, there has been a “shift in priorities,” with inter-Korean cooperation getting more attention while aid for defectors and North Korean human rights issues have been slashed.
Additionally, North Korean defectors in the South have reported being pressured not to criticize the Kim regime.
“In South Korea, there is a protection law against animals. Dogs are being protected with dignity,” Kim said. “But North Korean defectors and teenagers and minors are not protected.”
Kim called on the international community to advocate for the protection of North Korean defectors.
Kim’s organization is also involved in advocating the release of seven North Korean defectors arrested last month in China, who face the possibility of being repatriated to North Korea.
“If they are repatriated, they face a bad fate of execution in a political prison camp,” Kim warned.
“The South Korean government and this present administration, through the minister of foreign affairs, they have asked for some collaboration to the Chinese government. However, they say they will check afterward after they are repatriated. But I think this is because they have some meetings in the future they are looking forward to with Kim Jong-Un. They probably know that they can not do anything right now. I am convinced that the Korean administration is not doing anything.”
Harassed in Washington
Kim also made headlines during his visit to Washington, D.C., for North Korea Freedom Week.
He was among a group of Korean defectors and human rights activists who were harassed and had their "Make America Great Again" hats stolen by African-American men in the nation's capital on April 30.
Video of the harassment was posted online and has been viewed tens of thousands of times. The incident occurred as the group of about four to five human rights activists was crossing a crosswalk.
"Even though I can't read much English, I came here and have this hat that represents that administration or the president. This is a delegation fighting for human rights," Kim said through his translator. "I don't know if that is looking down on us. Somebody can say if they don't agree, 'Can you put your hats down' politely. We came here and some of us came to the U.S. for the first time in their life and we don't feel like we need to be ridiculed."
"If it is this dangerous to wear a hat here, it distorts the image of the United States that we have been thinking," Kim added. "We come here for human rights issues. The media and the press should cover that so such incidents will not occur again."