|This appeared in todays WSJ. It's also available at the Journal's free op/ed site at:
A Defector's Story
My escape from North Korea--and South Korea.
BY BOK KU LEE
Thursday, June 5, 2003 12:01 a.m.
Bok Ku Lee is not my real name, but one I've adopted to protect my family.
For a number of years I served as head of the technical department at a munitions complex that made missile guidance systems and related electronic devices for North Korea's military. I was one of 100,000 or so scientific and professional people involved in the regime's weapons of mass destruction industry.
While I made enough money to modestly feed my family, I witnessed mass starvation and oppression of those less fortunate, and unspeakable abuses of power and lifestyle excesses by senior political officials of the regime. As did everyone, I lived in constant fear of being sent to the gulag for the slightest indiscretion.
Nonetheless, I was trusted with some of the regime's biggest secrets. While serving, I was sent to Iran to test launch one of our missiles with a new guidance system for the then-ruling Ayatollah Khomeini. I consulted with colleagues who were sent to serve on an operational war basis for Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War, and others who were sent to other countries to sell, service and install such missile systems. I ordered, supervised and monitored the foreign purchases of electronic and guidance material--90% of which came from Japanese suppliers. I worked with some of the 60 or so Russian scientists who had been "cherry picked" by the regime to work in Pyongyang's nuclear, atomic, chemical and biological warfare programs--and who continue to work there.
Yet, like most of my fellow countrymen, I longed for the day when I could escape the Stalinist prison my country had become. That day came six years ago. I made my escape in July 1997 by crossing the Yalu River into China after sundown. I lived in China for two years with enough money, contacts and employable skills to make me less vulnerable to starvation or capture than most North Korean refugees. That said, I lived in constant terror of capture by Chinese authorities, for I knew that such capture would have resulted in a death sentence upon repatriation to the North. In 1999, thanks to an ethnic Korean in China who notified me of a fishing boat scheduled to ferry dozens of illegal laborers that very night, and, unknown to the operators of this boat, I escaped to South Korea as a true stowaway.
Upon my arrival, I was debriefed by South Korea's National Intelligence Service, and occasionally put in the hands of unsophisticated American questioners in Seoul. Remarkably, the South Korean officials made it clear to me that I would be in danger if I were to speak out about the WMD programs I had worked on or the atrocities I had witnessed. It soon became obvious that they feared my testimony because it might jeopardize South Korea's "sunshine policy," which seeks to keep the North's repressive regime in power in order to avoid the economic consequences to the South were it to collapse.
Incredibly, Seoul seems unwilling to accept that propping up Kim Jong Il's regime has had grave consequences for the world. While traveling to the China-North Korea border last year, I met with former colleagues and learned that the production at our old missile guidance system plant was up to normal levels following receipt by the regime of substantial amounts of foreign currency from the South. In 1997, when I left the plant, the output had shriveled to 30% of the pre-Nodong One launch in 1993 due to the lack of hard currency that had limited the capacity to pay for Japanese parts imports.
Last year, facing increased pressures from the South Korean Intelligence Service to remain an invisible man, I decided to do all I could to escape from South Korea's hands. I obtained a passport under the pretense of traveling to Japan, and, with the aid of an underground-railroad activist, obtained a visa that brought me to the U.S. last month. While here, I put on a hood to protect my identity, held a press conference in Washington and testified before the Senate in open and closed sessions about what I know about Pyongyang's weapons of mass destruction.
The reaction to my activities on the part of the South Korean intelligence was immediate. My wife, a North Korean escapee who'd been captured by the Chinese and sent to a North Korean prison before escaping again, was subjected to threatening phone calls from police and intelligence officials that so terrorized her as to cause her collapse and hospitalization. Thanks to the intervention of Sens. Richard Lugar, Peter Fitzgerald and Daniel Akaka--to whom I shall remain forever grateful--South Korean officials have since been contacted about the treatment of my wife, and the harassment and intimidation have, for the moment, ceased.