Park Sang Hak’s story of defection and survival gives an important insight into the inner-workings of the North Korean regime.
Born into an elite family, Park Sang Hak worked through his 20s and 30s as a propaganda officer under Kim Il Sung’s Youth League.
Then, his family defected to South Korea. He is now the president of Fighters for a Free North Korea, an advocacy organization that embodies the democratic spirit. Their key mission revolves around sending human rights and pro-democracy items—literature, DVDs, radios—across the North Korean border in enormous balloons. His work has been awarded by the Human Rights Foundation and was covered on CNN and BBC, amongst other networks.
But his story goes far deeper than that. I had the pleasure of meeting Park Sang Hak during a talk at my school, Yale University, where he shared his experiences and inspiration behind a life dedicated towards democracy. It all began, he said, in a mandatory defectors’ camp between North Korea and South Korea.
It was when he had first read the Bible. No, Christianity hadn’t inspired him to turn to service, in fact: he scoffed at the texts upon the first impression. When reading the verses, he viewed them as stories. He dismissed the biblical verses as scamming, foolish, brainwashing—while remembering the North Korean regime in a favorable light.
Many years later, he revisited the Bible. He found connections that he hadn’t before: the 10 commandments much like the 10 tenets of North Korean dictatorship and that the North Korean regime was structured much like the Holy Trinity. But the Bible had more to support that—where the Biblical text has do-good proverbs and lessons, the North Korean regime relied on blind support. His mindset shifted, and he finally realized that Jesus wasn’t the scam artist, the North Korean regime was. He had been conditioned to view Western thought, and thus Christianity, as ridiculous, so he had been blind to the similarities between the two structures.
Park Sang Hak is now a devout Christian, and even more devoted to exposing the idol worship that’s indescribable unless you’ve been to and escaped North Korea. He likens the regime to a cult church—to expose a cult church, you reveal their rights violations and secrets to the members of that church, and he plans to do the same for North Korea.
Park Sang Hak doesn’t just have opinions on Christianity. We discussed if removing the kingpin of a brainwashed church, or in this case, a nation, will work. He thinks it will. He stresses that the nuclear missiles cannot reach the United States, but they’re incredibly effective at keeping protestors in fear—and the United States from intervening. He believes South Korea, especially with its alliances, is almost 40x strong than North Korea, yet behaves weaker because of the people of Seoul’s apathy. He’s tired of South Korean politicians dealing with partisanship instead of the silenced issue of human rights. He’s fearful that denuclearization talks at the upcoming summit between Kim Jong Un and President Trump will end like they have the last 8-9 times: with North Korean provoking at the negotiation table, asking for concessions instead of providing them.
Sometimes, even he feels useless and ineffective. In a democratic country like South Korea, he thought the activism would be vibrant and encouraged, not troubled and filled with hardships. But he forges forward in his work—as we should too, as everyday activists.