As he strides into the room and sits down in a plush chair across a small table from me, it quickly becomes apparent that my interlocutor, a prominent defector from North Korea, spent a great deal of time in the military. Despite his ready smile and slightly mischievous sense of humor, Mr. Shim, as he asks to be called, has ramrod straight posture and fluid motions that readily reveal his army background.
After briefly glancing at me, with my kippah perched on my head, he grins and turns to the translator and says, with an unconcealed smile, "This is a first for me. I have never sat down and spoken with a Jew before."
"That's okay," I reply without missing a beat, "because I have never spoken with a North Korean either, but I am sure we will do just fine."
After a hearty chuckle, Shim gets down to business, telling me the harrowing story of his life growing up in one of the world's harshest and most forbidding dictatorships, a country so secretive and shrouded in mystery that it has come to be known as the "Hermit Kingdom."
"I was born in 1950 near Pyongyang, which is the capital of North Korea," he says. "My family was considered a very good revolutionary family because both my brother and my father had fought against the United States and South Korea in the Korean War," Shim notes, adding that as a result, he received special privileges while growing up.
As a youngster, he decided that he wanted to become a general and serve in the armed forces. In 1968, he joined the North Korean military, which sent him to officer training school at Kim Il-Sung University, named after the founding father of the Communist regime.
After returning to the ranks, Shim was steadily promoted and his postings included a stint serving in the command base responsible for the defense of Pyongyang. He eventually became a lieutenant-colonel as well as a political officer for the ruling Workers' Party, which was the position he held at the time of his defection in March 1998.
No one knows with certainty just how many people have fled North Korea since the Soviet-backed Communists took power in 1948 after the division of the Korean peninsula at the end of World War II, but according to South Korea's Ministry of Unification, there were 31,093 defectors officially registered with the ministry at the end of December 2017.
Since many defectors have fled elsewhere, particularly to China, which shares a border with North Korea, it is likely that the overall number is significantly higher. But one thing is certain: ever since young Kim Jong-Un assumed the mantle of leadership in 2011 after the death of his father, the mercurial Kim Jong-Il, the number has been dropping because of tightened border controls and increased restrictions.
North Korea remains a single-party state with one of the worst human-rights records in the world. The UN estimates that between 80,000 and 120,000 North Koreans are being held in political prison camps throughout the country, where rape, torture and starvation are rampant. The average North Korean enjoys no freedom of speech, press or religion and must live with an intrusive surveillance state that promotes a cult of personality around the Kim family.
It has been 20 years since Shim, who is now a pastor, succeeded in escaping the tyranny, leaving behind his family, friends and everything he knew and loved for the sake of freedom.
Because of his ongoing involvement with efforts to assist other North Koreans longing for liberty, Shim has asked that only the sketchiest of details be provided about him and also requested that no photographs of him be published, as he fears potential retaliation by the North Korean government, which has been known in the past to carry out abductions and executions of opponents abroad.
What prompted you to defect?
My journey began in January 1997, when I began to read the Bible surreptitiously. I obtained a copy from a friend who worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and who traveled abroad, as Bibles are not permitted in North Korea. On one of his visits to China, my friend had become a Christian, so he brought a Bible back with him and gave it to me. I opened it to the beginning and read the first verse of Genesis, which says that God created the world. I didn't believe it, so I tossed it aside. But subsequently, I picked it up again and decided to read it from beginning to end. And then I read it through a second time.
How did it impact you?
When I read Genesis 1:26-28, I suddenly realized that North Korea's long-standing policy of "self-reliance" was lifted from the Bible. They simply appropriated the idea. I became disillusioned with Kim Jong-Il, who took power after his father Kim Il-Sung died, and realized that the Communist path had no future and that the Bible was the way to go. I decided that if I wanted to walk in the way of the Bible, I would have to leave the country. In fact I felt that God was telling me to leave. But I ignored it, and then He told me again and also for a third time.
Had I been serving at the border, it would have been relatively easy to do so, but I was serving in Pyongyang. I decided to go to China. When I reached the border, I prayed and said to God, "If You exist, then please help me to cross the border safely to freedom." There were North Korean border guards in the area, yet somehow I made it across, thanks to God. It was as if the guards were blinded to my presence.
What about your family?
My parents had died. I was married with a son in the army and a daughter. But even they did not know that I had been reading the Bible. My plan was that when I would get to China I would arrange for them to get out, too. Once I was in China, I met a Korean-Australian pastor and stayed with him. While there, I listened to preachers on a Christian radio station, and I asked the pastor to send a letter to the station about me and my story. He did so, but without telling me he also sent a copy to the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS). The NIS came to China to pick me up. They promised me that if my family would be willing to defect, then they would take them to South Korea.
What happened then?
The Korean-Australian pastor that I met went into North Korea to find my family and guide them out, while the NIS took me to South Korea. Since I was a high-ranking military officer, the NIS had promised me that they would not publicize my defection or my arrival in Seoul. But when the plane landed and the door opened, there was a television crew from the Korean Broadcasting Service there and they broadcast my arrival live. My family still in North Korea – my wife, my son and my daughter – all disappeared, and the pastor was unable to locate them. I have not heard a word from them since and I do not know what happened to them.
What did you do after you arrived in South Korea?
For the first year, I worked for the NIS. But then I decided to study theology and I eventually earned a master's degree and PhD and became a pastor. I started a church, which I named Creation Church, because I had found God through the Book of Genesis.
Was it difficult for you to adjust to life in South Korea?
I did not find it too difficult to adjust. But until today it is hard for me to understand the pop culture and self-indulgence among capitalist countries. Pop culture seems to talk mostly about love and eroticism, but not about higher values such as patriotism and love for the country. And the political sides in South Korea are just fighting each other, in the process shaking the foundations of this country.
When you still lived in North Korea and served in the military, did you ever meet Kim Il-Sung?
I met Kim Il-Sung and took part in meetings with him. I even took a photo with him. Kim Il-Sung was a tall, handsome man with a deep voice. He had a good personality. I felt that I would die for him if necessary. After Kim Il-Sung died, people expected changes. But the first thing that his son, Kim Jong-Il, said was that there would be no changes. Then, in the 1990s, the country was struck with a terrible famine. But Kim Jong-Il enjoyed women and drinking while the people starved. I realized there was a serious problem in the country. Kim Jong-Il was a devil who killed millions of people through famine. There is no one as evil as Kim Jong-Il in all of Korean history. So I thought to myself, if I have to give my life for Kim Jong-Il, I would have a problem with that. I would not do it.
In the Western media, there has been a great deal of speculation over the years as to when the regime in North Korea will collapse. When do you think this will happen?
There is no chance that the regime will collapse. I met some American officials on a visit to Hawaii and I told them very clearly: the only way to bring down the regime is with force – and it must be done.
Why don't you believe it will collapse?
There are three reasons. First, the entire country has been brainwashed for decades and the populace adores and worships the Kims as if they were gods. Secondly, the regime uses the notion that South Korea and the United States pose a threat to North Korea to maintain control and justify their rule. Finally, and no less important, is the reign of terror that is imposed by the Kim regime, which tolerates no dissent and punishes it severely.
In recent months, there has been a flurry of diplomacy, including inter-Korean summits and a meeting between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un, with a key issue being North Korea's nuclear arsenal.
North Korea is not serious about denuclearization. It is fake. Before South Korean President Moon met with Kim Jong-Un in April, I gave a number of press interviews. I said then that Kim Jong-Un is deceiving the United States and South Korea and that is still the case. It appears that Mr. Moon wants to be deceived.
Kim Jong-Un has been portrayed at times as being crazy. Do you think he is rational?
Yes, Kim Jong-Un is rational. But he is evil.
Are you still in touch with officials in North Korea?
My ministry conducts regular short-wave radio broadcasts to North Korea. Sometimes, I direct my remarks to the North Korean leadership and challenge them over their policies and their treatment of the people. I also get Bibles and books to some of the North Korean elites. I cannot reveal how I do so, but I can say that it works. It opens their eyes.
What do you think of Israel?
When I lived in North Korea, we thought of Israel as the enemy, but we also were told they are good at fighting and we respected them because they took their own land back and liberated it. I visited Israel once, in 2009, and I loved it. I still remember eating St. Peter's fish in the Galilee. But I will say this: you need to be tough. If you have any problems with your neighbors, just put me in charge for a little while and I will take care of it.