North Korean journalist Joo Seong-ha defected to South Korea in 2001.

SEOUL: South Korea president Moon Jae-in had on numerous occasions in recent months vowed to achieve unification of the Korean peninsula by 2045.

However, for North Korea defector Joo Seong-ha, he does not see it happening peacefully, more so under North Korea leader Kim Jong Un’s regime.

Currently working as a journalist in the international affairs department of Dong-A Daily Newspaper, Joo defected to South Korea in 2001.

He was born and grew up in a rural fishing village in North Korea in the 1970s.

He graduated from Kim Il-sung University, majoring in English.

Prior to his escape, he was detained and spent time in concentration camps before finally escaping in 2001 and arriving a year later.

“I lived through and witnessed dictatorship. I saw how the North Korean government treated the people.

“It is an unlikely scenario for both South and North Korea to unify peacefully as Kim would want to continue his dynasty for the next three to four generation.

“In my perspective, I see this only happening if Kim’s regime collapsed,” he told Asian journalists during his lecture on Korea peninsula issue.

Journalists from eight countries are participating in the 2019 Kwanhun-KPF Press Fellowship here.

The New Straits Times has been selected to represent Malaysia in the month-long fellowship this year.

Others included Brunei, Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Mongolia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Figures showed that some 33,000 North Koreans had defected to South Korea, with about 10,000 of them living in Seoul.


Joo said the decision for him to defect came about following the big famine in the 1990s which left hundreds of thousand people dead.

He recalled how North Korea was a very poor country in the 1990s.

“Since North Koreans do not pay taxes, all systems were based on bribery. The higher your ranking, the more you get.

“The higher-ups gained wealth through real estate, by granting approvals for construction projects.

“I still remembered how my rich classmates used to have a few hundred (US) dollars in their wallet as their daily allowances.

“100 dollars then is equivalent to several thousand won in current times. When I said 100 dollars, it was equivalent to an actress spending a night with you.

“At that time, a 100sq metre land in Pyongyang cost 60,000 US dollars,” he said.

But for others like him, Joo added, they were living from hand to mouth, sometimes borrowing food from their neighbours before month’s end.

“North Korea practiced socialism, which is supposed to be equal to all, but such was not the case.

“There, they practiced the distribution of food system, with students getting 400gm daily, labour workers (600gm) and elderly as well as children (300gm). It kept you alive but not to make you full.

“The system was designed to control the people because if you were full, you won’t listen. As such, the government controlled you by not giving you enough food,” he recounted.

Joo said it was then he decided to organise a secret organisation and recruited his friends to join him.

That, however, did not change anything.


Most defectors, according to Joo, goes through the same escape route — first to China, then to a third world country (either Laos or Thailand) before finally arriving in South Korea.

He said during the long journey, many defectors were arrested.

“These days in China you must have an ID to board a bus or train as without one, it will be difficult.

“There is a brokerage system to ease your journey to Laos,” he said.

He also explained that in between North Korea and China, there was the Tumen River, where security was extremely tight, with one having to pass through electric fence and surveillance cameras even if they arrive on the China side.

“If you get caught, you will be detained and put behind bars for eight years. If North Korea finds that you are bound for South, you will be faced with the life sentence.

“Back then, when you give the North Korean authorities 100 Yuan (14 dollars now), they would pretend not to watch and let you pass through, which was what I did. Now, one will have to pay 17,000 dollars to escape.

“When I was escaping, I promised the broker that I would pay 10,000 dollars later if I was successful, and I was given a fake passport and an ID.

“The Chinese officials were also bribed as they allowed me to pass through, fully aware that the documents were fake.

“I was hiding in China for a year when I arrived. I was just so happy when I finally made it,” he recalled.


Joo said when he first arrived in South Korea, life was extremely difficult for him as there was no guidelines for defectors.

So, for the first few months, he went to the Labour Force before landing himself in the construction line.

“After a few months, I learned to use the internet and applied for a job in the newspaper.

“After arrived in the South, for 12 years, I never went to bed before 3am — it was a very hard life,” he added.

He said many defectors choose to live in Seoul but not everyone would get to do that. Others would have to move to other cities.

“And so we draw straw to decide who gets to live in Seoul. I was one of them who picked the wrong straw,” he said with a chuckle, adding that it took him three months for the naturalisation process as a South Korean citizen.

Asked if he faced any discrimination in the South, he replied in the affirmative.

“North Korea is an enemy of the South. Many times, I was told to my face that ‘I was a spy and that I should go back to North Korea’. I just ignore them as my biggest enemy is Kim.

“I have been writing a lot about the North since then and I am sure Kim is reading all of them. Even the Labour Party in the North had mentioned my name and saying that I am the bad guy. There are also threats to my life,” he stressed.

Joo said there had been numerous suicide cases among detractors to the South as they could not adapt to life in the South, with claims of some living in poverty.

In fact, last August, authorities discovered the bodies of a mother and her son, about a month after their death.

“If was difficult to ascertain their cause of death by then but there were words that they died due to starvation.

“When the police checked, indeed, there was no food in the house,” he noted, stressing that the mother could not go to work as her six-year-old boy was suffering from epilepsy.

In South Korea, he pointed out, one would never starve to death as the government was always there to support.


According to Joo, both North and South Koreans were one and the same, except that they were raised in different ideologies.

As such, he said they were confusion in the values.

“As I said from the start, reunification is not possible under Kim’s regime.

“If it happens after his fall, I believed the North would be absorbed by the South as there are 50 million people in the South and 20 million people in the North. Also, there is between 20 and 30 times GDP difference between the two.

“The South has democracy and practiced market economy while the North, socialism.

“Let’s say, hypothetically, Kim dies tomorrow and the North Korean regime falls, the South do not have the capacity to accepting 20 million North people. We are going to face similar difficulty,” he said, adding that if the GDP per capita was not that wide, then the South is capable of accepting the North.

Asked if reunification would be possible with the US’s help, he said “of course” but the North should shed its socialism.

“They want capitalism but that doesn’t mean that they will adapt well to it when introduced.

“Take Germany for example, there are still side effects after 30 years.

“The biggest issue is discrimination. In this case, the North will be hostile towards the South, which will lead to an eventual difference and possibly civil war,” he said.

Moon, had in August, again pledged to achieve unification of the Korean peninsula by 2045 during a nationally televised address to mark South Korea’s Liberation Day.

He had said that the “entire process” of achieving denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula was probably at its “most critical juncture” and had urged the resumption of negotiations with Pyongyang.

The process towards reunification started in June 2000 and was reaffirmed by the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula in April last year.

Since his defection, Joo had written 16 books with regards to the Korean peninsula issue.

He also operates a blog called “Pyongyang Story Written in Seoul”, which had attracted 69 million page views as of October 2015, one of the most widely read online information channels about North Korea.

Despite North Korea’s repeated murder threats, Joo is not letting his guard down by continuously broadcasting information from the outside world across the border to North Korea.

He has also been invited to various parts of the world to share his views and stories.