The most powerful weapons against totalitarian regimes are the defectors. Their stories of hardship and resilience show us the power of the common man or woman and give us glimpses into the true nature of the regimes. During this issue’s feature interview, Suzanne Scholte shared dozens of significant anecdotes about North Koreans and other victims of totalitarianism. These harrowing glimpses into life under a cruel regime are featured here, in Scholte’s voice, as stand-alone stories. For more information about Scholte, North Korea and totalitarianism, see “Fighting for totalitarianism’s victims.” – Sarah Stanley
Welcome to Freedom!
Orestes Lorenzo was a defector from Cuba, but first he was an Air Force major who had impressed Cuban leadership. As a result, he and his wife got the opportunity to study abroad in the Soviet Union. While in Cuba, they believed the propaganda that the Soviet Union is the great motherland and they thought, “They’re the perfect socialist paradise. That’s where we’re heading. It’s going to be great for us.” But when they went there, Gorbachev was in power, so the Soviet Union was starting to open up. Lorenzo was able to read about what was going on outside of the Soviet Union. He and his wife started to have a lot of doubts about socialism and the Castro regime in Cuba. Additionally, his wife was a nurse and saw the Soviet medical system, which was absolutely appalling. This was supposed to be the great paradise, but things in Cuba were not as bad as they were in the Soviet Union. They started to question this system.
The story gets more interesting though. One of their sons got really ill, and they didn’t know what to do because they didn’t want to take him to the hospital in the Soviet Union. They felt subjecting him to the Soviet medical system would make his illness worse. So Lorenzo said to his wife, “I don’t know what you’re going to think about this, but I think we should pray to God to help our son.” And his wife said, “Oh, I’m a Christian too. I was just afraid to tell you.”
The propaganda videos they had seen in Cuba always showed that white people had privilege and money. Everybody else lived in terrible poverty. He thought, "That’s the one calculation I didn’t make."
Having these people come out and tell their stories and their real-life histories of what made them change is huge. In Lorenzo’s case, he and his wife went back to Cuba, where he made the decision to defect. He also wanted to turn a Soviet MiG over to the United States. The plan was for him to defect first and then his wife and sons would follow later. Because he was in the Cuban Air Force, he was able to avoid the surveillance and fly the Soviet MiG out of Cuba. He headed to Florida. He was flying into the U.S. Air Force base at Turkey Point, where he was going to turn over the plane, but the Americans were going nuts because here’s this Soviet MiG coming. They didn’t know what was going on. So Orestes was signaling, “I’m turning the plane over. I’m defecting. I’m defecting.” He said when he was flying into Florida it suddenly passed through his mind that although he had come to doubt socialism, he was suddenly hesitant. One thing he hadn’t thought about was the color of his skin. The propaganda videos they had seen in Cuba always showed that white people had privilege and money. Everybody else lived in terrible poverty. He thought, “That’s the one calculation I didn’t make. How are they going to accept me?”
He was not white; he was Hispanic. He was curious how he would be treated. But when he landed his plane and popped open the canopy of the Soviet MiG, he was greeted by an African American Air Force colonel who shook his hand and said, “Welcome to freedom!” All his fears disappeared.
Soviets discover faith and swimming pools
Stanislav Levchenko, a man who defected Stories from the worst regimes By Suzanne Scholte “ The propaganda videos they had seen in Cuba always showed that white people had privilege and money. Everybody else lived in terrible poverty. He thought, ‘That’s the one calculation I didn’t make.’” from the Soviet Union, had been in the KGB. His assignment was to try to turn the Japanese toward the Soviet cause. So he would take Japanese businessmen who visited Moscow to visit different special sites like Red Square and historic destinations.
He would show them the old, beautiful Russian churches that were still there. He said there were these old women who he would always see worshiping there. And he said he could tell when they were going to visit the church because they would look really stressed. But then they would go into the church and pray, and he would see them come out and they would be at peace. He started to think maybe there was something to this religious thing. But he didn’t know how to pray because he’d been raised in an environment with no religion. Instead, he started composing letters to God, memos to God in his head. He became a secret Christian and ended up defecting.
There was another Soviet agent. He was in the GRU, which was their military KGB—their intelligence. He came over here to the U.S. on assignment to be a spy. He said what changed his opinion was swimming pools. He was flying over Virginia, and he asked his seatmate, “What are all those reflecting things on the ground?” And his seatmate said, “Oh, those are swimming pools.” At that moment he realized that in a free society there was vast wealth, and he was shocked by that. He thought, “Look at all these people who are living like kings.” That totally changed his view.
The North Korean classification system runs deep
Kim Seong Min is the director of Free North Korea Radio. His father was a famous poet in North Korea and they lived a life of luxury. They were high on the Songbun classification system. But the father fell out of favor because at the time when North Korea was trying to block the influence of China, his father evidently had close connections to the Chinese. So the whole family was exiled to a rural area, where Kim grew up, but they eventually were allowed back to the capital city. And he became an army captain and a propaganda officer. Kim Seong Min was special because all the North Korean defectors admired him. He had been both high and low on the Songbun classification system. Sometimes the defectors come out and they think, “Well, I was up here. I was part of the elites. I was important.” So some of the former elites look down on the non-elites. They couldn’t help it because they were living in this classification system. But Kim is totally free of that system.
Kim found out he had an uncle in South Korea and reached out to him. It got discovered and Kim had to flee to China to avoid arrest in North Korea. He got arrested in China and was forced back to North Korea. The Chinese who arrested him actually told him, “We know you were in the army. We’re sending you back to die. You’re going to be executed because you were in the military. There’s no hope for you.” The Chinese turned him over to the North Korean security, boarding him on a train to take him to Pyongyang for execution, but Kim jumped from the moving train and was able to escape again. He worked in China as a laborer and was able to reconnect with his uncle and eventually make it to South Korea. Then his girlfriend, who became his wife, came after. She was Chinese.
When Kim was being interviewed by the National Intelligence Service of South Korea (because every North Korean defector goes through an interview process when they first come to South Korea), they offered him a drink. He said they asked him, “Would you like tea? Would you like soda?” They offered him all these drinks. He could not believe there were so many choices and so many flavors. They would bring in a different beverage every day. He was convinced it was an elaborate con. He could not believe such a variety of different beverages were available. So he said the first thing he did when he finished orientation at Hanawon (the facility where North Koreans learn how to adjust to South Korea) was go to a store, where he counted all the different beverages. He was just shocked. That just shows you the deprivation.
All North Korean defectors will tell you that going to South Korea is not like going to another country. It’s like going 100 years in the future or going to another planet. They are shocked by what they see in China, the prosperity in China, but they are even more overwhelmed when they get to South Korea.
North Koreans are so used to fending for themselves, they don’t understand why anyone would help them. North Korean ideology teaches that devotion and sacrifice is for the regime alone. Scholte shared several examples of Korean defectors who struggled to understand why strangers wanted to help them.
There’s a North Korean defector; a woman who eventually opened a coffee shop and bakery in Richmond, Virginia. She said one of her first customers was a police officer in uniform. When she handed him the coffee, he handed her money and she wouldn’t take it. She was afraid and kept trying to give him the coffee for free. He said, “I can’t take this for free. You have to take this money.” So they had this long back and forth. Finally, she realized, “The police are here to help me. He’s not here to bribe me. He’s not here to take advantage of me. He’s not here to extort me.” She was shocked, because in North Korea, the police are part of the State Security Bureau. They’re a part of surveillance. They’re against the people. She realized, “This man is here to help me.”
There’s another North Korean defector, Joseph Kim, who’s up in New York going to school. He wrote a book about his life and escape titled Under the Same Sky. After he defected, he kept thinking, “There must be something wrong with these Christians.” He thought they were deranged. They kept giving him money and food and asking for nothing in return. “What do they want back? Why would they do that? It’s so weird.” He thought there was something literally mentally wrong with Christians.
When many of the defectors had decided to escape, they were told, “Go to a place that has the ‘t’ sign—the Christian cross— because the people there will help you. They’ll give you food. They’ll give you money.” The North Koreans were thinking, “Why would anybody do that? Why would anybody give you something for nothing?” That’s why Joseph Kim wrote in his book that Christians were crazy. That whole concept of pure generosity is totally beyond them.
The sacrificial love of Titanic
The greatest threat to the regime is Christianity, because North Koreans are slaves to that dictatorship. Christianity upends everything the North Koreans have been indoctrinated to believe.
The 1997 movie Titanic became a big hit in North Korea. It was secretly circulated throughout the country. An elite living in Pyongyang with her son, who wanted to become an actor, was secretly watching Western films. She watched that film and got reported to the State Security Bureau. A bureau agent showed up at her door and said, “If you lend me the film, I won’t tell anybody.” But this movie got circulated so widely around North Korea that the regime felt they had to respond to it. They explained that the movie was not really a love story but a depiction of the failure of capitalism because the great ship Titanic, symbolizing capitalism, sunk on the same day as Kim Il Sung’s birthday: April 15, 1912. So they tried to turn the movie’s popularity into positive propaganda for the regime. Several defectors who saw Titanic said it was revolutionary for them because North Koreans are taught they should sacrifice only for the dictator, while the film’s a love story about somebody sacrificing himself for someone else. Everything is for the dictator, who is their god, so to see this sacrificial love for another person was radical. The idea of helping someone, of giving to someone. That’s beyond their understanding.
Christianity: a bigger threat than capitalism
Eom Myung Hui was a marketer working with a South Korean importing seafood. She was a real capitalist. Because of her South Korean business partner, she became exposed to the gospel and became a Christian. When she got arrested by the North Korean state security agents, she thought they were arresting her because they heard she had been part of the underground economy, was involved in the private markets and was a capitalist.
She said they tortured her for a week but never asked her about her market activity; they only wanted to know if she had become a Christian. They couldn’t care less that she was illegally buying, trading and selling. She denounced Christianity. Because she was a teacher, she was high up on the classification system and was able to convince them that somebody was trying to ruin her reputation by saying she was a Christian. So she was released. After that she knew she had to escape. And so she did and came to China and was able to eventually get to South Korea. Then she raised enough money to get her two daughters out. She spent $10,000 to rescue each of her two daughters.
The North Korean officials didn’t care about the illegal marketing she was doing. All they cared about was that she may have become a believer. She’s a pastor now. She was a believer. She denied her faith, and now she’s a very strong Christian.