Joo Yang once hid underground in a tiny bunker made for storing kimchi as she evaded detection while fleeing across the North Korean border to China. Years later, Yang built a new life in Seoul, speaking in public about her experiences to shed light on life in the communist country.
But she and multiple defectors and human rights activists say paid speaking opportunities for North Korean escapees — including media appearances and public lectures at universities and military bases — have disappeared over the past two years while President Moon Jae-in has sought rapprochement with dictator Kim Jong Un.
The allegations raise questions over whether Moon’s policy of engagement with Kim has also included efforts to silence critics and shift public focus from problems such as human rights abuses in North Korea. Suzanne Scholte, chair of North Korea Freedom Coalition, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, says the change in approach was “definitely coming from the government.”
Ahn Chan-il, a Seoul-based defector, researcher and commentator on North Korea, likewise believes that from early 2018 — ahead of a flurry of summitry between Moon and Kim — he was “permanently struck from the list” of guest contributors with most state-backed media. “I used to be on [state-linked television news] almost every day, but suddenly since March , they stopped calling me,” Ahn says.
Academics and others say they have also been directed by officials and media executives to use the formal title of “Chairman” when talking publicly about Kim. For North Koreans who risked their lives to escape and still have family in the country, the request is highly offensive.
Human rights organizations say Moon’s government has also cracked down on groups that try to counter Pyongyang’s propagandists by sending factual information and cultural content into North Korea. The 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, signed by Kim and Moon, contained a pledge to “stop all hostile acts” including loudspeaker broadcasting and distribution of leaflets along the border area. Read more