Series features student who defected from North Korea

The Office of International and Advanced Studies (OIAS) hosted its third Traveling Tap on Wednesday, Feb. 6, at Pierce Road Bar and Grill.

The event was rescheduled from Wednesday, Jan. 30, after SVSU closed due to weather conditions.

Traveling Tap is a series that OIAS began this academic year to highlight different faculty and student experiences with international travel or topics.

Geonwoo Lee, an international student at SVSU, was the speaker. He defected from North Korea when he was 20.

Lee decided to defect from North Korea after visiting his uncle in South Korea. After learning about life in South Korea and elsewhere, Lee decided that North Korea wasn’t the “great country” that he had been led to believe.

His uncle helped him to escape North Korea and its control over its people.

He spoke about the ideology that North Korean citizens are indoctrinated in. He, like many other North Koreans, did not realize that his country “wasn’t a great country” until he was exposed to other ones.

Lee and Byungi Ahn, a history professor, explained that many North Koreans began questioning this notion after The Great Famine.

“The famine era was 1994 to 2005,” Ahn said. “Around 300,000 to 350,000 died of starvation. Another one million North Koreans left their homes to find food in places like China.”

While the famine broke the “great country” facade for many Korean citizens, many still remained loyal to North Korea.

“They experienced a really bad situation, but they never rebelled or protested,” Lee said. “They still say that our country was a great country.”

Lee gave further examples of this loyalty, such as publicly grieving after the death of leaders. He also said that North Korean citizens are expected to keep and worship photos of their leaders.

“Every home and public office has photos of their leaders that they worship,” Lee said. “They can’t imagine a better society than theirs.”

The rest of his lecture focused on answering why that was the case.

Often, the propaganda began with untrue or exaggerated stories they were told in school.

“When I was in kindergarten, I learned our great leaders’ histories,” he said. “When our current great leader was 7 years old, he drove cars.”

In school, Lee and his peers were taught that their leaders “were not people – they were gods.” As such, they were not permitted to criticize them.

However, citizens were expected to criticize themselves and other citizens. They did so every Saturday, Lee said.

They also recited North Korean ideology during the criticism meetings.

When Lee came to South Korea to visit his uncle, he was confused by their ideals.

“Imagine having that ideology (of North Korea),” he said. “It’s hard to accept other ideologies. They block any information from coming from South Korea to our side.”

Nonetheless, he learned to question the North Korean ideology from his travels to South Korea, Russia, America and more.

“When I first came to South Korea, I was very confused,” Lee said.

North Korea’s psychological control over its citizens made it hard for Lee to “think critically.”

“In North Korea, there is a right answer for everything,” he said. “When I went to South Korea, I saw democracy, constitutionalism, philosophy and critical thinking about the government. I had never seen those words before.”

Lee believes that most Americans fear North Korea for the wrong reasons.

“Whenever you think of North Korea, you think of the crazy stuff, like nuclear weapons, and you think that’s the most dangerous thing about them,” he said.

North Korea’s psychological weapons are more threatening, he said, than their physical ones.

“I think the most dangerous thing about the North Korean government is they don’t let the people think for themselves,” he said.

A question-and-answer session followed the lecture, which Ahn helped moderate. Jessica Louissaint, a nursing junior, and James Fitzworth, a psychology sophomore, found the lecture informative.

“I thought it was interesting to actually learn about the indoctrination and the education system, like the Saturday confessions,” Louissaint said. “I liked learning about how these worked so I could understand the people more.”

Fitzworth saw the lecture as an opportunity to learn more about why Americans view North Korea negatively and how accurate that point of view is.

“Our preconceived notions aren’t exactly wrong,” he said. “It’s good to know why their government is ‘bad,’ as we’re taught, and how that affects their citizens.”

Reported by Kaitlyn Farley, Vanguard Editor-in-Chief

Kaitlyn Farley

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