Skip to main content

North Korea's propaganda machine grips defector 11 years on

By Kyung Lah, CNN
updated 9:19 PM EDT, Fri April 12, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chae Young Hee abandoned North Korea for the South 11 years ago
  • She experienced starvation as well as the brutality of the regime
  • But seeing images from her native land fill her with pride
  • "This is how you are brought up since birth. Even I can feel the pull in my heart"

Seoul (CNN) -- To the outside world the images from North Korean state television are nearly comical -- weeping soldiers chasing Kim Jong Un into the freezing sea, elderly women screaming as the young leader approaches, and North Koreans unleashing dogs at a poorly made effigy of a South Korean leader.

But as Chae Young Hee watches, her eyes begin to brim with tears and her lips tremble uncontrollably with national pride.

Chae is not a North Korean anymore, having defected to South Korea 11 years ago, abandoning the totalitarian regime.

READ: 'OK, N. Korea, you have our attention'

In the North, she experienced starvation, the brutality of the regime and fled with her daughter in hope of a better life in the free world. But as Chae watches KCTV, the North's only television channel its citizens can view, the power of the propaganda she grew up with takes hold.

Inside North Korea: Starvation and death
N. Korean defector recounts dad's death
Is N. Korea a nuclear threat?
Regime propaganda as news in North Korea

READ: N. Korea missile report sparks intel controversy

"They're God," she says, referring to North Korea's trinity, Kim Jong Un, his father Kim Jong Il, and grandfather Kim Il Sung.

The tears are now running down Chae's perfectly made up face and she chokes back a sob. "This is how you are brought up since birth. Even I can feel the pull in my heart. I thought I forgot about this feeling since it has been so long.

READ: Can China convince Kim to back off?

"But seeing this now, I feel I'm back in North Korea. I don't know how to express myself. He is really great and I feel we will all die without him."

Chae stops talking and asks for a glass of water. She tries to compose herself.

"I know their sincerity," she says, as she watches a group of soldiers sing and sway before Kim, their faces red with emotion and streaked with tears. "This is not a lie. It is not an act. It is real. If anything happens, they will give up their lives. They will even jump into fire."

Chae seems to fall into an other-worldly trance, unable to answer questions as clearly as she did before the North Korean television started to play. She watches children's programs, which always have the evil American or South Korean villain that must be defeated. Prime-time movies are often war movies or romantic tales where the North Koreans defeat the American imperialists.

When North Koreans watch news on the dear leader, they believe in it. We live because of him.
Chae Young Hee, defector

Chae laughs as she sees a program she recognizes from her childhood, a clay action movie where an adorable North Korean cat defeats the evil South Korean rats.

Watching her slip back into her time as a Pyongyang resident is a window into how the North Korean regime manages to maintain its seemingly unyielding hold on its people.

"Even if I tried to explain this, I don't think people here would understand. They won't think this is real," she says, watching a news clip of adoring citizens waving flowers and rushing to the young leader.

"But this is true. That is the truth. And we can't think for ourselves. When North Koreans watch news on the dear leader, they believe in it. We live because of him."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:17 PM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Sources tell Evan Perez that U.S. investigators have determined North Korea was in fact behind the Sony hacking.
updated 8:48 PM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Obama says people should "go to the movies" without fear, despite hackers' threats against venues that show "The Interview".
updated 7:35 PM EST, Mon December 1, 2014
CNN's Brian Todd reports on the hacking of Sony Pictures and whether North Korea could be behind it.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
As the U.S. gets ready to blame the Sony hack on North Korea, a troublesome question is emerging: Just what is North Korea capable of?
updated 8:57 PM EST, Mon December 8, 2014
A retired Silicon Valley executive and Korean War veteran was hauled off his plane at Pyongyang in 2013. Here's what happened next.
updated 5:57 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
A recent defector from North Korea tells of the harrowing escape into China via Chinese 'snakehead' gangs.
updated 7:39 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
CNN's Amara Walker speaks to a former North Korean prison guard about the abuses he witnessed and was forced to enact on prisoners.
updated 12:59 AM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
The chief of the Commission of Inquiry into North Korea's human rights says the world can no longer plead ignorance to the regime's offenses.
updated 7:34 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Kim Jong Il's former bodyguard tells of the beatings and starvation he endured while imprisoned in the country's most notorious prison camp.
updated 1:34 PM EST, Mon November 10, 2014
Christian Whiton argues "putting the United States at the same table as lawless thugs isn't just morally repugnant -- it's ineffective".
updated 1:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
Despite tense relations, China benefits from Kim Jong Un's rule in North Korea. David McKenzie explains.
updated 4:51 AM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
North Korea has "the world's most advantageous human rights system" and citizens have "priceless political integrity", the country declared.
updated 4:52 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Pro-wrestling, country clubs and theme parks are just some of the attractions North Korea wants you to see on a tightly controlled tour of the country.
ADVERTISEMENT