Cablegate: Dprk Defector Personifies Materialistic Motives For
DE RUEHUL #1108/01 1070141
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 170141Z APR 07
FM AMEMBASSY SEOUL
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 3921
INFO RUEHBJ/AMEMBASSY BEIJING 2334
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO 2443
RHMFISS/COMUSKOREA J5 SEOUL KOR
RHMFISS/COMUSKOREA J2 SEOUL KOR
RHMFISS/COMUSKOREA SCJS SEOUL KOR
UNCLAS SEOUL 001108
DEPARTMENT FOR DRL
E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREL PGOV PREF PHUM KS KN
SUBJECT: DPRK DEFECTOR PERSONIFIES MATERIALISTIC MOTIVES FOR
1. (U) SUMMARY: On March 29, Lim Il, a North Korean defector,
spoke at the monthly meeting of the AhRin Forum in Seoul to an
audience of academics and foreign diplomats posted to the ROK and
the DPRK. Lim described his journey from North Korea to the South,
where he received asylum in 1998, via a stint working for a
construction company in Kuwait. Lim said that North Koreans are
eager to work abroad even though they receive little compensation;
that even family members report on each other's unauthorized
activities; and that North Koreans defect to escape starvation,
rather than political oppression. Lim noted that the families of
defectors were often punished by DPRK authorities, yet he exhibited
no concern for the family he left behind in the North. END
LIFE IN NORTH KOREA
2. (U) Lim was born in Pyongyang in 1968 and spent the first 29
years of his life there. During that time, ten-year military
service was not compulsory for all males, especially for those with
"baek" (connections). Lim was exempted from military service and
instead obtained a position in the communications section of the
External Economics Committee, a government agency similar to the
South's Korea Trade Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA).
3. (U) Like others before him, Lim described North Korea as a
closed society in which ordinary people remained largely ignorant of
life outside the country. When he lived in Pyongyang, Lim said that
he had thought of North Korea as the most socially, economically and
technologically advanced country in the world. He had, in fact,
considered Pyongyang to be "heaven." Lim also said that ordinary
citizens' sole connection to the outside world consisted of
first-hand reports from those who had returned from working abroad
for state-owned companies. After hearing accounts of better living
standards abroad, Lim resolved to defect to the South. North Korean
policy allowed only married men to work abroad, while their families
remained behind. Consequently, Lim married and started a family,
thereby qualifying him to seek overseas employment.
4. (U) Lim described a climate of fear and suspicion in North
Korea, which affected traditional Korean family dynamics. Despite
close relationships with his two older brothers, Lim had no doubt
that they would have reported him had they known of his intentions.
Lim claimed to know of instances when even fathers and sons reported
each other to the authorities for engaging in unauthorized
activities. When North Koreans defected, the authorities punished
the families left behind and often sent them to work camps. Lim
said that he had resolved, however, to leave North Korea regardless
of the cost to his family.
WORKING IN KUWAIT AND DEFECTION
5. (U) In November of 1996, Lim left Pyongyang to work as an
accountant for one of the three North Korean construction companies
operating in Kuwait. Lim estimated that there were approximately
5,000 North Korean laborers in Kuwait at that time. He added that
these laborers usually worked 16-hour days without pay or days off.
Their salaries were directly deposited into a government bank
account in Switzerland. Upon returning to North Korea after
completing three-year tours abroad, these workers were compensated
with household appliances and electronic goods such as televisions.
Because an average North Korean could not purchase even a black and
white television with a lifetime's worth of savings, most people
considered these compensation arrangements to be generous.
Therefore, overseas opportunities were in high demand.
6. (U) In March of 1997, Lim's first attempt to make contact with
South Korean authorities ended in failure when the Korean embassy
was closed due to a Kuwaiti national holiday. Lim said that he was
fortunate that his taxi waited for him at the embassy, otherwise he
could not have returned to the construction site unnoticed. He
returned to the embassy ten days later and was granted asylum by the
South Korean ambassador. Upon discovering Lim's absence, the North
Korean authorities accused the South of kidnapping him and demanded
his immediate release.
7. (U) As a neutral party, the Office of the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) processed Lim's application for
refugee status, after which he arrived in South Korea in March 1998.
Upon arriving in Seoul, Lim said that the South Korean intelligence
agency processed and debriefed him for approximately six months to
ensure that he was a bona fide defector.
LIFE IN SOUTH KOREA
8. (U) Upon arriving in South Korea, Lim attended a university in
Cheonan and graduated with a degree in industrial design.
Nonetheless, Lim said that he had a difficult time securing
employment post-graduation because of discrimination against North
Koreans. He claimed to have married a fellow North Korean defector
in a Seoul church in 2002. After two years of unemployment, Lim
found work at a computer graphics company, but his wages barely
provided for his new family. Lim said that the first inter-Korean
summit in 2000 inspired him to write his first book, which provided
a humorous look at life in Seoul. His second book, memoirs of his
time in Pyongyang, was published earlier this year.
THOUGHTS ON POLICIES TOWARDS NORTH KOREA
9. (U) Lim said that he supports the South Korean government's
engagement policies, especially the provision of humanitarian aid.
Lim estimated that 3 million North Koreans died of starvation in the
1990s. He conjectured that had third-party countries not
intervened, the number of starvation-related deaths would have
increased to 12 million, approximately half of the North Korean
population. At the same time, Lim called for more oversight of
and accountability for any humanitarian aid. He claimed that
ordinary citizens received only 10 percent of the food aid, while
the government and military hoarded all remaining supplies. Lim
recounted public displays of government officials distributing food
to citizens during the day, only to take back the food at nightfall
when satellites could not monitor their actions. He recommended
that the Korean Red Cross directly administer the distribution of
food aid in the North.
10. (U) Lim said that the North Korean government still held a
strong grip on the political and social consciousness of the public.
He claimed that ordinary North Koreans were more concerned with
practical everyday survival, rather than with ushering in regime
change. North Koreans risked the dangerous journey to China to
escape starvation, rather than political oppression. Lim
contradicted reports that foreign media influences, most notably
South Korean dramas and music, were politically mobilizing the
masses. Although he acknowledged greater access to foreign media
outlets, Lim emphasized that North Korea remained an insular
totalitarian state. According to Lim, defectors had little actual
knowledge of the outside world until they escaped across the border
11. (SBU) To our surprise, Lim did not express any regret about
leaving a family behind in North Korea to suffer the consequences of
his actions. His stated reasons for getting married in North Korea
were opportunistic, and aimed at securing overseas employment as a
conduit to escape. Lim's own life, therefore, seemed to reflect the
erosion in family loyalty in North Korea that he described.
12. (SBU) Under South Korean laws, both spouses must consent to a
divorce. Because Lim's North Korean wife presumably could not have
agreed to a divorce, the South Korean government likely would not
have recognized his second marriage, nor have recorded it in his
family census registry. The National Assembly has recently passed
legislation designed to ease the burden on North Korean defectors
who wish to remarry in the South.