North Korea held a massive military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party at Pyongyang's Kim Il-sung Square on 10 October. A North Korean defector Lee Jung-woo, who now lives in the UK, revealed the realities of North Korea in an interview with FreeNK, conducted on 12 October.



A burden or an honour


Several military parades were already held in North Korea recently to celebrate the birthdays of the country's founder Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il as well as the anniversary of the Korean War armistice. However, the military parade, which took place this month, attracted international attention as one of the country's largest military parades ever, with 20,000 troops and 100,000 citizens.


Mr Lee, who served in the North Korean military, participated in two military parades celebrating the 60th anniversary of the army’s foundation in 1992 and the 40th anniversary of the Korean War armistice in 1993.


“Selected soldiers are trained together at Mirim Airport near Pyongyang three months prior to a parade. Since the training lasts 9-10 hours per day, everybody feels tired, but it is not possible to express their discontent,” Lee said.


According to him, participants are generally chosen among outstanding soldiers, so it’s an honour for soldiers to participate in a military parade. But financial rewards are not provided, they just get compassionate leave after the event.


The dictatorship has used massive events in order to secure internal solidarity and demonstrate its power to the outside world. However, such large events can become financial burdens to the country, which is currently suffering severe economic difficulties.


He said that even if the military parade organised this month is the largest one ever in terms of the number of participants, presented weapons, most of which are not high-tech ones, are smaller in number compared with previous parades.


The US and the Western world have accused Pyongyang of wasting its budget, which should be spent to improve the people's welfare, for holding lavish events. Some media reports said North Korean authorities exploited civilians to raise funds for the largest military parade. However, he denied this.


“It’s true that before military parades, the people's units(Inminban) based in each region arrange local events to make the people donate food and commodities for participating soldiers, but the regime doesn’t impose additional taxes or exploit workers,” he said.


“In Pyongyang, the party allocates quotas to firms and schools for mobilising a large number of performers, including young children. Performers are selected among Pyongyang residents and absence is not allowed without special reasons, so people living in Pyongyang shoulder more burdens whenever big parades take place,” he added.



Reform and openness are unlikely


Although North Korea’s ruling Workers' Party has been accused of its oppression, it has survived for 70 years. “Corruption is rampant in the party, but it is well-organised and plays a vital role in maintaining regime stability by effectively controlling the people”, Lee said.


He added that except for a privileged few loyal to the party, there is widespread discontent among the people with the Workers’ Party.


It has been almost four years since Kim Jong-un came to power in late 2011.


“Many expected changes from the young leader at first, but he is also a dictator like his father Kim Jong-il. As shown by the frequent changing and killing of top officials, he adopted more brutal approaches to consolidate his power,” Lee said.


He viewed that Kim Jong-un regime is unlikely to take steps towards reforms and openness given the reality that the party, military and security agencies, which are securing regime survival, don’t want any change.


“There is no reason for Kim Jong-un to risk weakening his leadership by alienating the support groups through sudden policy changes,” he said.


It was recently reported by the BBC that North Korean economy is recovering slowly. He also agreed that economic conditions look better now compared with the era of great famine known as the Arduous March in the 1990s.


“As the state’s control over economic activities has become weakened, capitalism is penetrating North Korea. Private markets have spread across the country, and state-owned companies are allowed to barter surplus products or distribute them to their workers,” he said.



NK seeks a ‘peace treaty’ with US


The so-called ‘blood relations’ between North Korea and China have deteriorated since the pro-Chinese official Jang Sung-taek's execution in December 2013. But China's fifth highest ranking official Liu Yunshan’s attendance at the military parade is expected to be a catalyst for the restoration of Sino-North Korean relations. “Concerns are rising in Pyongyang because relationship is growing between Beijing and Seoul, and China is increasingly alienating the North on the international stage, as seen by its persistent support for UN Security Council Resolutions against North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. So it seems that China showed a willingness to gradually restore the bilateral relationship by sending Liu,” Lee said.


Meanwhile, he emphasised that North Korean people, however, don’t have favourable views of China. “People in North Korea believe that China attempts to increase its influence in return for financial support, and antipathy towards China was amplified by China’s historical claim to the ancient Goguryeo Kingdom as one of its local governments,” he said.


Although Inter-Korean relations have fluctuated in recent years, South Korea’s Park Geun-hye administration stresses ‘preparation for unification’. However, Lee was highly sceptical about South Korea’s capabilities to control and stabilise the northern part of the peninsula after the collapse of Pyongyang regime. “There is a lack of proper strategies and visions towards unification in South Korea as political parties and civil organisations are deeply divided by ideological disputes,” he pointed out.


“Unfortunately, the North doesn’t regard Seoul, which is under the US influence, as a dialogue partner. Also, the South is unreliable in terms of policy consistency given that its presidents change every five years,” he added.


Lee argued that the bilateral relationship between the US and North Korea is still vital because Pyongyang’s position is clear that it can open its doors after the regime security is guaranteed by Washington through signing a peace treaty.


“Pyongyang fears potential external attempts to overthrow the regime. Chinese-style openness is not applicable to North Korea because, unlike China, North Korea is facing the huge military threats from South Korea, where American troops are stationed. The key step is to restart US-North Korean bilateral talks, but a significant progress seems unlikely in the near future considering the high level of mutual distrust,” he said.



People should be given essential freedoms


What he wishes was not a dramatic change like the collapse of the North or unification.


“North Korea’s current regime harshly suppresses the people. I want living conditions in the North to be improved via economic openness and gradual policy changes as China and other socialist countries did. Calling for a Western-style democracy and freedom is unrealistic at this time, but the people should be able to choose their school and job by themselves, and also freedom of movement should be allowed.”

(Free NK, Translated by Bohyun Kim)