People watch a TV screen showing an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivering a statement in response to U.S. President Donald Trump's speech to the United Nations, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Picture: Ahn Young-joon/AP
Two North Korean defectors I met in Seoul this week said it was access to banned information about the outside world that made them question Kim Jong-un’s regime and escape the hermit kingdom.

We take it for granted that North Koreans understand something about the outside world but actually, most don’t. They have been raised to believe that they live in a paradise where the Kim dynasty looks after their every need. Blind loyalty is all they know as they don’t have anything to compare their system to.

I had assumed that university professors had more of an insight of life beyond North Korea, but as it turns out, most don’t. This is where Professor Kim Heung-Kwang gave a rare glimpse of the information nomansland North Koreans find themselves in.

Professor Kim was an IT professor for 20 years in Pyongyang, and highly regarded in society. But when he illegally tuned in to banned radio stations such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, he realised that his perception of the outside world was completely misguided as a result of the state’s propaganda.

His wife was petrified of him being caught as a vehicle would regularly pass through the neighbourhood called a “voice catcher” which somehow detected whether residents were listening to illegal information. There were also often random inspections where officials would raid neighbourhood houses and use an operating system for a PC or mobile phone that could inspect what information had been looked at by going through the log pile.

The Kim dynasty in North Korea has survived for as long as it has by completely controlling information and access to it. Those who make critical remarks are sent to prison labour camps along with three generations of their family for the rest of their lives. There is almost no chance of escape and punishment and forced labour is barbaric.

As an IT expert, in 2002 Professor Kim became part of the censorship team responsible for ensuring that citizens were not watching illegal material. One day he got hold of a banned DVD about the outside world and lent it to a friend. The friend got caught watching it and was sent to a forced labour camp. Kim was suspended as a professor for a year and sent to do torturous labour on a farm for 12 months.

When he came out he was stigmatised and scorned by his colleagues, and he decided to escape the country by illegally crossing the Tumin river into China. He had to pay four months’ salary to a broker who bribed the border guards to allow him to escape during the change of shift. Many escaping along the same route are shot dead in the water, and the chances of failure are higher than those of success.

Professor Kim joined at least 30 000 North Korean defectors who are living in South Korea, and set up an organisation for North Korean intellectuals - doctors, engineers, teachers and professors.

Professor Kim’s main work now is to customise information for the North Korean audience about the outside world, and put it on USB sticks that are sent into North Korea through a secret network.

So desperate is the regime to prevent such information being disseminated, that Kim Jong-un has passed a death sentence on Professor Kim and North Korean spies are hunting for him in Seoul. It is no wonder that I met him in such a secret location.

Professor Kim has had to devise a highly technical means by which to conceal the information turning them into “stealth USBs” so that state officials are unable to decipher the contents. North Korean IT experts have broken his encryption methods and he is continuously trying to find new means by which to hide the information.

Professor Kim believes that if more North Koreans gained access to real information about the outside world and the rights that they are being denied, they would defect or start an organic resistance movement against the regime.

But the road to liberation for North Korea is fraught with almost insurmountable odds. Dissidents have no support in terms of arms from outside powers, and if ever enough people were to demonstrate on the streets they would be slaughtered like sheep.

If ever a genuine struggle for freedom emerged in North Korea, it is unlikely to win the outside support that African liberation movements enjoyed.

The few people who know the truth about their society and want to work from within for change, are merely a handful of Davids against a monstrous and seemingly all-powerful Goliath.

* Ebrahim is Group Foreign Editor.

The Sunday Independent