Kang Chol-hwan fled North Korea in 1992 at the age of 24 for South Korea, finally arriving after a six-month journey through China. He had been imprisoned at age 9 because his grandfather was accused of treason. He spent 10 years in a political prison camp in Yodok county, 68 miles northeast of Pyongyang. Since his defection, Kang has dedicated his life to educating the world on the prison camps that the Kim regime has repeatedly denied to exist and promoting human rights for North Koreans. Kang is president of the North Korean Strategy Center in Seoul and the author of “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.”

He talked with USA Today by phone in Korean; his responses have been translated and shortened for clarity purposes.

What was your life like in North Korea?

In August of 1977, my entire family and I were sent to the Yodok prison camp that is made for political prisoners. I went there at the age of 9 and stayed there for 10 years until February of 1987. We were brought into the concentration camp because my grandfather was an executive affiliated with the government who was charged with political treason. As a result, three generations of our family were punished.

Describe a day in the Yodok prison camp.

We would wake up at 5 a.m., check attendance and then were forced to perform harsh labor until 7 p.m. We would get one hour for lunch at noon and were only given salt and corn. If we ate only what we were given, people would die of malnutrition because that was a legal way of killing prisoners. So people ate everything they could to survive – we caught mice, insects, frogs, whatever we could see.

What’s the one thing you can’t forget from living inside the camp?

There were all sorts of torture facilities inside the camp, and if you made mistakes or caused trouble, you would be dragged and abused in all different ways. Every once or twice a month, they would have public executions. But the most shocking image I will never forget was when I saw two prisoners hanging on a scaffold, and they made thousands of us throw rocks at them until their bodies were unrecognizable.

Why did you decide to escape North Korea?

After coming out of the camp, I lived in North Korea for about five years. I heard the KBS radio (South Korean broadcasting system) and that’s when I learned about the outside world, heard South Korean songs for the first time and realized the truth about how flawed the North Korean government is. I became a part of an anti-establishment movement with my friends and was shortly being chased by North Korean authorities. Because I faced the risk of being imprisoned in a political camp again, I decided to flee North Korea with my friend.

Why do you think Kim Jong Un is suddenly changing his attitude towards the world, and can we trust him?

In terms of giving up nuclear weapons and granting power, freedom and rights back to his people – we can’t trust him. I think Kim Jong Un is changing his attitude because he is getting desperate and feels that his regime can no longer be sustained if the status quo persists. This is all part of his plan and I think it’s pretty foolish to think that he would really get rid of all his nuclear weapons. The world needs to make negotiations with Kim knowing that he’s probably not going to give up his weapons.

How do you feel about the recent diplomatic talks happening with Kim Jong Un between South Korean and American leaders?  

I was shocked when I heard that President Donald Trump would be assuring the security of Kim Jong Un and his regime. It’s murderous of anyone to say in return for denuclearization, Kim’s political system will be assured. This is insulting to North Koreans. Who gets to assure the North Korean regime? Shouldn’t the people of North Korea have the power to make that decision? The people of North Korea should have the right to decide through a vote what political system they want. Ensuring security for a murderous regime that ignores people’s basic human rights and kills people for no reason – that’s a crime in itself. 

How have past diplomatic talks and international aid helped the people of North Korea?  

Past policies of other countries that attempted to open up to North Korea such as the sunshine policy (South Korea’s previous policies of reconciliation and cooperation with North Korea) have actually made life worse for the North Korean people and only helped the leadership get stronger. If people want an actual effective sunshine policy, then they need to push for the improvement of human rights in North Korea.

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