As US president Donald Trump prepares to meet with North Korea's ruler Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 19, 2018, all eyes are on North Korea.
Little is known about day-to-day life there, even among people who study the country. According to one defector, government propaganda in North Korea is pervasive, and even self-proclaimed North Korean experts often don't realize how much.
In 1997, North Korean defector Kim Young-il escaped while the country was experiencing a four-year-long famine and economic crisis that some estimates suggest claimed the lives of between 240,000 and 3.5 million North Koreans, out of a population of 22 million — despite the government claiming it was a prosperous time with plenty of food.
Now 39, Kim is the founder of a nonprofit, People for Successful Corean Reunification (PSCORE), to help raise awareness about human rights issues in North Korea, promote reunification, and help defectors adjust to life in South Korea.
Even though Kim escaped the dictatorship, he told Business Insider in a recent interview that life remains the same in North Korea: Citizens are lied to and have to accept it. Within Korea, people major in North Korean studies in school, which Kim finds "silly." He says these experts research North Korea and send information to the South Korean government, like reports that several factions are competing for power in North Korea, which could lead to the country's downfall.
But Kim says this is false. "There is no difference between factions. There is only the family and the people. Kim Jong Un has total power. None of these factions are important. They just have a name. They have no power." Kim continued: "Experts say there are two different factions that control North Korea, but it is only the dictator and his family that controls everything."
Powerful people in South Korea are able to employ people who are loyal to them, but that's not an option in North Korea because the highest levels of government choose who works where, said Kim.
"People in North Korea have no idea if the person working underneath them is a spy who is checking up on him or her. They have no idea who is trustworthy. People can't form factions because everyone is spying on everyone else. Everyone distrusts each other," Kim said.
And as a defector, Kim said experts discount his experience. "These experts don't see any value in the testimony of defectors," he said. "They want to focus on the official documents of the North Korean government." But Kim says these documents and official announcements "are not true. It's propaganda."
"The official announcements of North Korea is all false," Kim said. "I experienced 20 years of North Korea and whenever there was a season of drought, the news would say there is a season of prosperity. What they officially say is all lies."
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