Interview: Meet Ko Young-hwan, the first diplomat who escaped N.Korea

Friday 22nd August, 2014

The first meeting of the Unification Preparatory Committee was held on August 7, 2014. Launched by South Korean president Park Geun-hye in February of this year, the committee was established to offer a blueprint to effectively bring about eventual Korean unification. The 50-member committee is made up of current government officials and civilian scholars and experts. One of the members is Mr. Ko Young-hwan, a former North Korean diplomat and an advisor to New Focus. We sat down with him to talk about his selection to the committee and insights into North Korea.


You are the only North Korean exile who was selected for the Unification Preparatory Committee, as a member of the foreign affairs and national security sub-committee. Do you think that you were chosen as a representative of the exile community or as an expert on North Korea? How should we look at it?

When you look at the guidelines on the establishment and operations of the Unification Preparatory Committee, one of the requirements is, “The chairwoman (Park Geun-hye) shall choose an individual who has broad expertise and experiences regarding the matter of unification.” Technically, I was selected for the committee for my experience as an expert on North Korea, rather than because I represent exiles. But I think they must have considered both.

Please share some of your thoughts on being appointed to the committee.

For 23 years, ever since I arrived in South Korea, I have walked one path alone: studying the subject of eventual Korean unification. I am grateful that the committee has regarded highly my experiences as a North Korean diplomat and consequent studies of North Korea. Moreover, as a North Korean exile, I am honoured to be among the fifty selected for the Unification Preparatory Committee.

What will be your responsibilities as a member of the foreign affairs and national security sub-committee?

In short, the committee has been formed to offer blueprints for the eventual unification of the Korean peninsula. The committee will offer advice and make policy recommendations on the foundational directions towards unification, suggest areas of research that are related to the objectives at hand, and encourage social cohesion on matters of eventual Korean unification.

When did you defect and what motivated you to defect?

At the time, I headed the Africa section in North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While I was posted in the People’s Republic of the Congo as an advisor in the North’s embassy there, I was accused of being a reactionary. I had been watching a video clip of Romania’s Ceausescu being executed and had muttered, “That just cannot happen in our own country”.

A fellow diplomat colleague heard that, distorted my remarks and reported me to Pyongyang that I had said “Kim Il-sung may also be executed by firing squad.” A month after that, I heard the news that a Ministry of State Security team had been dispatched from North Korea to arrest me. I escaped from the airport one hour before the squad arrived. That was in May 1991.

Tell us about your work in North Korea.

I served as Kim Il-sung’s personal French-language interpreter at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1985 to 1987. During that period, North Korea’s foreign policy was focused on non-aligned countries (Africa).

There are about 50 countries in Africa. Kim Il-sung took Africa seriously because he wanted to use votes in the United Nations for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea. He believed that if he could get the socialist Eastern Bloc and African countries on board, then he could make the withdrawal happen. That is why almost all African heads of state visited Pyongyang during that period.

At the time, I had written a policy recommendation for the absorption of and relations with non-aligned countries. Kim Jong-il read it and said, “That man is young but thoughtful, he also writes very well.” Kim Jong-il’s evaluation led me to become Kim Il-sung’s personal interpreter, to head the Africa section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and to serve overseas as an advisor.

What do you think were the reasons for North Korea’s failure in pursuing foreign policy focused on non-aligned nations?

It was a waste of effort on North Korea’s part – its non-aligned nations focused policy collapsed along with the socialist Eastern Bloc. In other words, North Korea focused too little on the pursuit of economic development, and too much on ideological development. The nonsensical Juche ideology continued to be enforced, which claimed Kim Il-sung to be the leader of an international revolution. The African nations were only interested in following him when he could afford to provide them with aid, why would they put the Juche claims first?

But more than anything else, things changed when Gorbachev declared reforms. My own transformation began when I attended the 70th anniversary celebration of the October Revolution in Moscow on October 7th, 1987. When I was at the Kremlin listening to Gorbachev’s speech on “Reformation and the October Revolution”, alongside North Korea’s Vice-President Park Sung-cheol and Vice Prime-Minister Kim Young-nam, I realized that socialism had ended.

You defected in 1991, a time when there were not that many defections at all. Your defection must have been a real shock to North Korea.

I was the first diplomat to defect since the founding of the DPRK. Kim Jong-il was furious when he received the report that I ended up in Seoul. Why did Ko Young-hwan go to Seoul? Diplomats for overseas postings were carefully vetted and micro-managed from among the core members of the Party. Kim Jong-il ordered that all my family and relatives be destroyed. When I heard the news that my mother died while being transported to Bukchang Political Prison Camp, I cried all night.

Because you were the first diplomat to escape North Korea since its founding, North Korean elites will be curious to know about your status, life and safety in South Korea.

Yes, they are curious. I was the first person to reveal Kim Jong-il’s power structures, foreign policy and Party policy decision-making processes to South Korea and the rest of the world. That is how I became the symbol of diplomats who left North Korea.

I have heard that many North Korean diplomats posted overseas remain “curious of what Ko Young-hwan’s life in Seoul is like”. My appointment to the Unification Preparatory Committee will have a significant psychological impact on North Korean diplomats and others posted overseas. There will be an impact within North Korea as well. In these regards, I feel that I have already served my duty towards the committee.

You have said that you have walked only one path for 23 years since your defection, but North and South Korea are different. For instance, in South Korea, the government’s North Korea policy changes when a new administration comes in. Have you felt a sense of alienation because of this?

I often felt confused and frustrated that North Korea policies would change with each administration. As someone who has firsthand experience of North Korea’s foreign affairs and policy, I was disappointed, even angry, at notions that unprincipled aid, dialogue or exchange could somehow change for the better North Korea’s underlying policy objectives even a little.

On each such occasion, I presented research that offered an opposing argument. Fortunately, this Unification Preparatory Committee includes experts from the ruling and opposition parties, and from the left and right of the political spectrum. Therefore, I hope that the committee will act as one driver to provide cohesion for South Korean society in preparing for unification – even when there is a change of government and policies.

After Jang Song-thaek’s recent purge, New Focus published an article that – for the first time – revealed the specific powers of the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) of the Korean Workers’ Party responsible for his execution. Some North Korea scholars have expressed very strong skepticism. Experts remain divided on who or what the real power is in North Korea. Is it the Party or the military? As one who has lived and worked in North Korea, and also, as a member of the foreign affairs and national security sub-committee of the Unification Preparatory Committee, what are your thoughts?

The North Korean military has long existed under the Party’s sole guidance. Even when Kim Jong-il initiated the military-first policy, the Party remained at the centre. And within the Party, it is the OGD that coordinates the system of absolute guidance.

When North Korea used to stress a classless socialist nation where the proletariat are the masters, did the proletariat actually rule North Korea? It is no different at all with the military-first policy. The North Korean military does not have any policy decision-making powers whatsoever, it is only a weapon of the Party. Even the highest entity of the military, the General Political Bureau, is overseen by the OGD’s Section 13. The OGD holds such fundamental powers that, as shown by recent events, it could execute even the uncle of Kim Jong-un.

You have dedicated yourself to the study of North Korea and eventual unification for the last 23 years. What is your advice to the younger generation of North Korean exiles?

What I really want to tell the younger generation is this: do not forget the pain, desperation, or suicidal thoughts that you felt during your escape. That indescribable determination that saw you through, all the way to freedom, do not lose it. It doesn’t matter what kind of work you do. The important thing is to consistently walk your path – that is how you settle into your new world, make it succeed.


Reporting by Kim Seungju.
Read in Korean.

Proudly in partnership with

Tuesday 6th September, 2016

“Because North Korea is a very patriarchal society, I heard that the wives are very devoted to their husbands. Is that true?” South Korean men are taking an interest in North Korean women as poten...

Monday 1st August, 2016

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="600"] “TNKR” earns the biggest gratitude from North Korean refugees.[/caption] There is one organization most revered by the North Korean refugee communi...

Tuesday 26th May, 2015

Hyon-Mi Choi holds the title of 'first North Korean women boxer' Super Featherweight World Champion. She says that more than becoming the champion, the difficult task is to maintain this title. On...

Friday 7th November, 2014

  Artist Song Byeok was born in 1969 in North Korea. After working as a propaganda poster artist at a steel factory in Hwanghae province, he attempted to cross the Tumen River to find food...