Kang Chol-Hwan is a human rights activist who is also the founder and president of the North Korea Strategy Center, an NGO seeking to bring free press and media into North Korea. Originally from a family with strong ties to the Workers’ Party, he was imprisoned as a child and taken to a Yodok concentration camp for 10 years.
In 1977, Chol-Hwan’s grandfather, who was the Vice President of the Commercial Management office in Pyongyang, was accused of treason and being an agent for the Japanese national police. His grandfather’s accusation meant the disgrace of his songbun and the entire family was to be sent to a concentration camp. In North Korea, songbun is used to determine whether an individual is trusted with responsibilities and given opportunities for success including food rations, education, social and political status. Kang’s mother divorced his father to save her own family’s songbun and Chol-Hwan along was sent to the Yodok concentration camp along with the other family members on his father’s side. At the time of his imprisonment, he was just nine years old. In his autobiography, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, Chol-hwan describes the terrible living conditions including exposure to the elements, routine beatings and being forced to watch public executions of other prisoners.
At the age of 15, he was assigned to a work detail where he witnessed many people die from starvation, while others resorted to eating rats and worms to survive. A standing order by Kim Jong-il stated that prisoners with relatives in Japan were to be released after 10 years. Chol-hwan was fortunate to have this connection and upon his release from Yodok he took up residence with his uncle in a small village nearby. Chol-Hwan soon bought an illegal radio receiver and began listening to broadcasts from South Korea which sparked an interest in outside information and anti-government activity. He was eventually identified and watched by the North Korean government. Rather than putting his family at risk, Kang and a fellow Yodok internee escaped from North Korea by crossing the Yalu River into China in 1992.
Chol-hwan made his way to South Korea, and in 2007 he established the North Korea Strategy Center. The NGO not only seeks to bring free press and media into North Korea by working with North and South Koreans but also raises awareness about North’s dire human rights conditions as well as advocating for freedom and a unified Korea. Since its inception, the NKSC has worked with over 150 North Korean defectors and sent over 40,000 DVDs, 400 radio sets, and 4,000 USBs into North Korea.
Illustration by Hanjoon Kim
In the North Korean flag, red represents the Communist revolution and the blue stripe represents the people. In order to maintain its dictatorial system and control over its citizens, the North Korean government often implements cruel policies.
Kang Chol-hwan is North Korean defector fighting for peaceful unification and against the abuses of the North Korean government. By using the colors of North Korea’s flag, the illustration demonstrates that idea of peace for the people (blue) comes out and spreads from him.
120,540 km2 (98th)
One-party state totalitarian dictatorship