Published July 02, 2009
As they crossed the airport in Singapore that day in 2003, heading for the plane that would take them to Seoul -- and a new life of freedom -- North Korean defector Kim Kwang Jin and his wife and son all feared for their lives.
"My wife was very frightened," recalled Kim, a high-ranking banker for the North Korean regime who was stationed in Singapore at the time. "She told me afterwards that...every step through the airport was like walk[ing] to [her] slaughtering....It was not easy to make such a decision."
Now a visiting fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, Kim is described by veteran analysts as the first English-proficient defector ever to escape the Hermit Kingdom.
Trim and sharply dressed, his bushy head of hair dyed jet black, the 42-year-old Kim, once an English professor at a computer college in Pyongyang, speaks polite and fluent English, albeit in a halting style and with a heavy accent.
An interview with FOX News in late June marked Kim's first with an American TV news channel. Kim recounted his extraordinary experiences working for the Northeast Asia Bank and Korea National Insurance Corporation, where he handled accounts worth hundreds of million of dollars.
He described two economies in North Korea: one administered by the North Korean Cabinet and nominally oriented toward serving the needs of the people; and a "Royal Court economy," financed by illicit enterprises worldwide and providing the stream of hard currency that keeps Kim Jong Il, and his cronies, ensconced in power and luxury.
"Kim [Jong Il] himself enjoys a lavish lifestyle," said Kim Kwang Jin. "He is giving gifts to his associates: the Mercedes-Benz[es] and whiskeys, first-class room and [air]fare from Japan. Everything's provided to his aides....Kim Jong Il himself is now ruling the country with [the] dollar, hard currency....Without hard currency they cannot rule the country."
Kim Kwang Jin described a society in which bankers demand bribes from clients, doctors from patients, professors and teachers from students.
"Everybody tries to make use of their position, their authority...to survive," Kim said.
The former banker said the regime's largest source of hard currency comes from the clandestine manufacture and sale of weapons of mass destruction. After that comes the regime's multibillion-dollar insurance fraud business, in which the authorities stage arson and bogus accidents to collect multimillion-dollar payouts from international banks and insurers.
"The state -- Kim Jong Il himself -- controls all these funds," said Kim Kwang Jin. "It is funneled to him. And then he's using all these revenues according to his regime's priorities, which are now the missile program and nuclear weapons development."
Kim Kwang Jin believes the North Korean government has never negotiated in good faith with the United States and its allies at the Six-Party nuclear disarmament talks.
"The North Koreans are coming to the table not for negotiation; they are there for winning, for implementing their strategy," he said. To grant meaningful concessions at such negotiations, or to enact meaningful internal reforms toward democratization, would, Kim says, be tantamount to "suicide to the regime."
Yet Kim also believes financial sanctions can compel better behavior from Pyongyang, and cites as an example the Treasury Department's targeting from 2005 to 2008 of Banco Delta Asia: a bank in Macau, also known as "BDA," through which the North Korean regime once transferred large sums. It was during this period, when Banco Delta Asia faced international restrictions, that the North made its most far-reaching concessions in the Six-Party Talks, only to renege on them once the sanctions were lifted.
"The BDA case was a frightening thing to the regime," Kim said. "It was a blow to [Kim Jong Il's] personal funding, to the economic sector which is now supporting the regime. And even the national economy, the people's economy run by [the] Cabinet, is influenced by this BDA case.
"So it was a heavy blow to the regime....We have good leverage....The next regime will be weak, very weak; so I think they will need help and influence from the international community. So if we are prepared to exert that influence, I think we can have [a] better regime there, better policy, and better human rights there."
Questioned specifically about the plans for succession in North Korea, which have come to focus on Kim Jong Il's third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un, the defector voiced deep skepticism.
"He's too young, and he's not prepared for the leadership," Kim Kwang Jin told FOX News. "Kim Jong Il himself now is ruling the country in his father's name. And [in] the third generation, the power itself will be very weak. The policy there has failed. And a lot of people are constantly facing the threat of starvation. So [Kim Jong Un] will not enjoy the support from the people."
Kim also alleges that Kim Jong Il, who is widely believed to have suffered a stroke and undergone brain surgery last year, copes with diabetes -- a claim that, like so many others involving North Korea, cannot be verified. The defector never met Kim Jong Il, but did meet his father, Kim Il Sung, revered throughout the country as its modern founder.
The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea was founded in 2001 and is advised by a group of foreign policy heavyweights that includes former Rep. Stephen J. Solarz, D-N.Y. and Richard V. Allen, a former aide to Richard Nixon and national security adviser in the Reagan White House.
The group publicizes abuses of the regime and underwrites studies aimed at influencing American policymakers. In 2003, the committee arranged for Yong Kim, the only known escapee from Kwan-li-so, the infamous North Korean gulag, to come to the United States and be interviewed by FOX News.
Kim Kwang Jin expressed sadness for the plight of ordinary citizens in his homeland, whom he described as oppressed, famished, and almost entirely cut off from the outside world of the twenty-first century. Yet he also portrayed his people as independent-minded and hungry for freedom.
"The power grip of the regime itself is loosening. And the days of Kim Jong Il himself [are] numbered, I think," he said. "So the people are becoming more open and brave to speak openly against the regime."
Kim said universities, research institutions and libraries, and a handful of large corporations all make use of shared computer networks, or intranets -- but very few people, all of them members of the elite ruling class, enjoy access to the Internet.
"They have no access to outside information," Kim said of ordinary citizens. "And information is very much controlled there. But there are a lot of defectors in China and there are still people who are working abroad; so from them they get information. And we have several private radio broadcasting stations in South Korea. And in America we have RFA and VOA. So I think those who have the transmitters can have access to some information."
When asked if he believes his former comrades in North Korea actually want democracy, Kim was unequivocal: "Sure they want democracy."
How could he be so sure?
"Oh, I was one of them, you know...And a lot of North Korean people are thinking that they are so miserable and unfortunate to be born there, which means they want free rule and they want democracy there."