For Lee Seong-min, like so many North Koreans, watching movies and TV programs was a high-stakes game of cat and mouse.
While DVD players are now a fixture in many North Korean homes — the government has no problem with the players — popular South Korean soap operas and movies are forbidden.
Lee said the government has, in recent years, started switching off the power in late evening. That way, the forbidden disks would be stuck in the DVD players, providing police with evidence as they made their rounds.
Residents like Lee began snapping up Chinese DVD players equipped with batteries — they could still eject and hide the outlawed disks, which were often hidden in the ashes in a fireplace.
“It’s a clever spot to hide, but the police are just as clever,” Lee said in a recent interview. “You have to stay ahead.”
When police discovered the battery packs, they began searching homes and clipping the wires connecting the batteries to the unit. Local entrepreneurs then offered a service to get the connections back together.
North Korea was already one of the most closed countries in the world before 29-year-old Kim Jong Un inherited power from his father a year ago. Today, North Korea experts say the country remains as hard to decipher as ever.
On one hand, the government is allowing modest measures of economic freedom and awareness of the outside world is growing, thanks to an influx of legal and illegal Chinese smartphones. Farmers for the first time were allowed last year to keep 30 per cent of their crop yield, said Charles Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University and the author of Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992. Programs allowing workers to travel to China in search of jobs are being expanded.
Yet personal freedoms remain elusive.
North Korea’s 1,400-kilometre border with China has more guards than in past years, and new razor-wire fences were being built, Armstrong said. That crackdown can be seen through South Korea government statistics that show 1,509 North Koreans settled in the south in 2012, the lowest total since 2006.
“This is still not a country where people have any political freedom at all,” said Armstrong, who has visited North Korea five times, most recently in 2012.
Perhaps the most famous North Korean defector in recent years is Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born in a prison camp compound known as Camp No. 14. At age 14, Shin told a guard at the camp that his mother and brother were planning an escape. He watched them both be executed. Shin escaped the country in 2005, wrote a Korean-language book about his experience and was later profiled in the book Escape from Camp 14, written by Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden.
Lee’s story, which could not be independently verified but was vetted by the Toronto group Han Voice, a non-profit that works with North Korean defectors, offers a glimpse of what day-to-day life is like for many of North Korea’s 24 million residents, particularly those who are not members of the ruling elite.
Lee, 26, has lived with a local Korean family near Yonge and Finch since July 2 and will attend courses at the University of Toronto through December. His travel to Canada was financed by Han Voice. Following his classes, Lee plans to return to Seoul to work with refugees newly landed from North Korea.
Lee was born in a village of 10,000 in Hamgyong province, near North Korea’s border with China. His father worked for the air force, his mother for a local trading company.
While as many as two million North Koreans are estimated to have died of hunger during famines in the 1990s, Lee said his family never went for food.
“We had rice for breakfast and lunch most days, and noodles for dinner,” Lee said. “We lived in a one-storey home with a bedroom and a kitchen and a room where we had the TV. Chinese news channels like CCTV1 were my favourite. And I had a dog named Arsom.”
Health care, though free, was virtually non-existent. North Korean patients typically have to bring their own bandages to the hospital before procedures. Medical staff are known to store blood in empty Coca-Cola bottles, a drink only now becoming available throughout the country.
Lee was 10 when his father died, but his mother’s income provided enough money to buy firewood in bulk. “It’s all you can use there,” Lee said. “Because of the energy crisis, no one is allowed to use an electric stove, even if they have them in their kitchens.”
Lee was 5 when he was taught to loathe Americans.
“In kindergarten, there they have races for students and as part of the race, there’s a mannequin of an American soldier that the kids have to hit on their way by,” Lee told the Star. “We’re taught that Americans are animals that will kill us, and many North Koreans have that mindset still. They think the Americans will invade and enslave North Korea.”
Yet feelings aren’t so hardened toward Canada.
“There’s a popular movie in North Korea about the life of Choi Hong Hi, the founder of taekwondo,” Lee said. “Choi lived in Canada for a period in the 1970s and the movie really portrays Canada as an open, beautiful place.”
Lee was 10 when he witnessed his first public execution. Police had marched an “enemy” of the state to a grassy field. Three executioners took aim and fired.
“One aims for the head, one for the heart, another for the leg, for some reason,” Lee said.
Before he left on Dec. 2, 2009, Lee witnessed at least 10 such executions, which were sometimes carried out upon offenders whose crime was to distribute DVDs of South Korean movies and TV programs.
“They would put notices up on boards at schools and companies, and sometimes factories would shut down so people would go to the executions,” Lee said. “It was crazy.”
Some North Koreans learned to read between the government’s official lines.
“We have one paper in North Korea called the Korean Workers Newspaper and the front page is full of news about Kim Il Jong, of course,” Lee said. “But inside there are stories about South Korea, like stories about protesters throwing eggs at South Korean police.
“The North Korean government wants us to see that life there is not perfect, but what I noticed was that they were throwing eggs. Eggs! We can only afford to eat those on our birthday, and in South Korea they have enough money they can throw them at police!”
Lee’s main advantage in life came from living so close to the Chinese border — it set him up with the opportunity to become a smuggler.
As a teenager, in search of goods to bring back to North Korea, he started walking across the shallowest stretches of the Yalu River into China. It wasn’t long before he was bringing back smuggled motorcycle and auto parts coveted by military officers.
“I became friends with all of the guys at the border,” Lee said.
At 19, Lee bribed his way into a job as a police driver, a job that paid a monthly salary of only 4,000 won (about 50 cents following a 2009 currency revaluation) but was rich in benefits.
“It’s the best job,” he said. “If you work for the police, you have that uniform and everyone is afraid so you don’t have problems.”
On Dec. 2, 2009, Lee snuck his mother across the border into China.
He hoped to reunite her with his sister, who had fled years earlier.
“I got a call that day on my Chinese cellphone saying that the military knew I had taken a woman across the border,” Lee said. “They didn’t know it was my mother and told me to get ready for an investigation when I got back. So I didn’t go back.”
From China, Lee went to Laos and then Seoul. He became the first North Korean defector to testify in English before the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. He arrived in Toronto on July 2 and has already taken in a Blue Jays game and the Molson Indy and continued his love affair with the Internet.