On February 14, 2017, Kim Jong-nam, the estranged brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was assassinated during a trip to Malaysia. According to Yonhap News, North Korea’s Ministry of National Security and its Foreign Ministry orchestrated the murder, which was carried out with VX nerve agent, classified by the UN as a weapon of mass destruction. Kim Jong-nam’s murder is a stark reminder that people who leave or escape North Korea remain bound to the regime. While Kim Jong-nam and other defectors are physically free from North Korea, they live in constant fear of its agents and assassins.
Kim Jong-nam was a son of Kim Jong-il and his mistress, an actress. Well-liked by his father and well-educated, he was widely regarded as the dictator’s heir apparent during his early years. But Kim Jong-nam embarrassed the regime when he tried to visit Tokyo Disneyland with a forged passport in 2001, and ended up living in disgrace in Macau, China, while Kim Jong-un ascended to power. Despite this, there was persistent speculation internationally that China was grooming Kim Jong-nam as a ruler-in-waiting in case Kim Jong-un proved to be incompetent. In 2012, Kim Jong-nam published a book pushing for North Korea’s economic reform through marketization, further enraging his half-brother. That year, there were rumors of a failed assassination attempt.
Sadly, if one knows the horrendous history of the North Korean regime’s persecution of its enemies, the death of Kim Jong-nam comes as no shock. After Hwang Jang-yop became the highest-ranking North Korean official ever to defect in 1997, he lived in constant fear of assassination. Living in South Korea, he made very few public appearances. Not only was he always surrounded by security, he refused to even drink water provided to him at public events. In 2009, North Korean spies in South Korea paid three South Koreans $40,000 to manufacture drugs and assassinate Hwang. All were apprehended before the plot succeeded, and the spies were sentenced to 10 years to prison.
Similarly, Park Sang-hak, the chairman of Fighters for a Free North Korea (FFNK), an organization that uses balloons to send leaflets to North Korea to expose its citizens to outside information, was nearly assassinated in 2011. When I spoke to Park, he told me that he was contacted by a defector who wanted to meet him to discuss sponsorship for FFNK, but that he was stopped by South Korean police on his way to the meeting. The police had discovered that the defector had been paid $12,000 USD to assassinate Park using a pen modified to shoot poison-filled pellets—and was being threatened that unless he went through with the murder, his family back in North Korea would be killed. In a perverse demonstration of its web of coercion and violence, the North Korean government was pressuring one defector to kill another.
Kang Chol-hwan, another North Korean defector activist and a founder of the North Korea Strategy Center, lives with very similar threats and fear. Imprisoned in Yodok concentration camp for 10 years, he managed to flee to South Korea upon his release. Since then, Kang has faced repeated anonymous death threats. In 2012, an assassin sent from North Korea was arrested while stalking Kang, keeping track of his every movement. In 2015, an axe was delivered to his office along with a death threat. Although Kang continues to live in fear of Kim Jong-un’s agents, he makes frequent public appearances to fight for North Korea’s freedom.
These chilling examples vividly demonstrate why North Korean defectors fear for themselves and the families they leave behind. The regime effectively holds its entire population hostage in order to dissuade its people from defecting. A 2015 news story illustrates how this process plays out. When their parents defected, the North Korean government sentenced two children to hard labor in the notoriously harsh blast furnace of an agricultural machinery plant in Haeju.
Despite the danger, there are numerous defectors who are fighting to help the compatriots they left behind. Ambassador Thae Young-ho, the second-highest-ranking official to have fled North Korea in its history, has made numerous public appearances since he defected to South Korea in 2016. As he himself defected after learning about the world outside of North Korea, he hopes that his media appearances will make it into North Korea and give people there the courage to desire change. In the meantime, most defectors are waging their battles in anonymity—they hide their faces with scarves when they face media coverage and use stage names when they appear on TV. Despite the danger they and their families face, they keep up the fight, hoping that one day soon their courageous efforts will succeed in bringing true change to North Korea.