When he talks about North Korea, Jean-Baptiste Kim still looks wistful. ‘They treated me like a prince,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I wish I could go back.’ He can’t. If he did his life would be in serious danger, because for 11 years Kim was a spokesperson for the Kim Jong-Il government. For 11 years, he was a public defender of a despotic regime that, human rights groups say, tortures its citizens, denies them freedom of information and incarcerates many of them in gulag-style prison camps; a regime that is responsible for the famine that looks set to sweep North Korea this year. But on New Year’s Day 2007, Jean-Baptiste Kim resigned his job and he is now (and will remain) a mobile phone salesman in New Malden, Surrey.
Jean-Baptiste Kim was once such a good PR man for the North Korean government that he even told the Guardian that it was ‘a joke’ that Kim Jong-Il has not yet won the Nobel Peace Prize. That was before he came face to face with some of the horrible realities of his beloved ‘fatherland’. ‘Now I’m just an ordinary guy in New Malden,’ he says, though perhaps not every ordinary New Malden guy has seven locks on his office door.
Kim’s story begins back in South Korea where he grew up under difficult circumstances. His father was a pro-democracy activist (South Korea only started becoming democratic in the 1980s), and was often incarcerated by various autocratic regimes for political agitation. ‘Life was miserable for us,’ Kim recalls. ‘My dad was always hiding or in prison. We were watched by the police 24 hours a day and the teachers beat me because I didn’t have money to pay for school. My hate grew for South Korea.’
So at 18, Kim fled to France where he joined the Foreign Legion despite knowing only one French word —‘Oui!’ — and over the next decade he trained, learned French, and saw active duty near Zagreb in Croatia. Then one day in 1996, after he’d returned to Paris, Kim was approached by a North Korean diplomat. The man’s name was Oon Yung. Kim calls meeting Oon Yung the most important experience of his life. The way Oon Yung set about grooming Kim to be a PR man for Kim Jong-Il was frighteningly professional. ‘He became my father,’ Kim says. ‘He talked like a father, he took care of me just like a father. Everything he told me, I believed. Everything he asked me to do, I did.’
During one of their many heart-to-heart conversations, the diplomat told Kim that North Korea desperately needed someone like him: a westernised civilian from South Korea who spoke French and English but was willing to stick up publicly for Kim Jong-Il. And on Oon Yung’s advice, Kim set up and ran (from bases in France, England and North Korea) a propaganda website called Voice of Korea. His main job was to give interviews to various newspapers defending Kim Jong-Il’s record. This he did. And he also helped to arrange import-export deals with his reclusive fatherland. In return for this, the grateful administration in Pyongyang paid him a comfortable income, and on his frequent trips to North Korea he was treated like a prince. ‘I was a high officer. I had great dinners,’ he says. ‘But all the time I was being educated in the juche ideology.’
Juche is North Korea’s creepy, semi-religious take on socialism. It’s a strange mix of communist ideals, military-industrial corporatism and Stalinist personality cult centring around Kim Jong-Il and the grinning undead spectre of his father, Kim Il-Sung. It’s pretty much impossible to explain to outsiders — but over the next 11 years, Kim tried his hardest. As well as running Voice of Korea, he gave interviews supporting the country’s communist rule. The world had North Korea all wrong, he said. It was just a matter of different lifestyles. After all, did not America and the UK have poverty too? And wasn’t it because of international sanctions arising from anti-communist bias that North Korea was kept so poor? Had everyone forgotten about Japanese colonialism and all those US troops massed north of Seoul?
Then came Jean-Baptiste Kim’s enlightenment. It began with an email from a heavy metal band. They had read an interview with him in the Norwegian press, and were curious: could they play a gig in Pyongyang? ‘Why not?’ thought Kim. Life in North Korea was such a party, there was no reason he shouldn’t throw a rock festival. ‘North Korea was hungry for positive PR and money,’ says Kim, ‘and it seemed like a good way to bring in both.’ Kim ran the idea by his superiors. They gave him the thumbs up. So Kim made the announcement on Voice of Korea, and the Western press picked up on the story. The festival would be called Rock for Peace, an event of ‘capitalist popular music’ in Pyongyang. It would be open to any band — as long as they promised not to sing ‘admirations on war, sex, violence, murder, drug, rape, non-governmental society, imperialism, colonialism, racism, anti-DPRK and anti-socialism.’
The idea was a worldwide hit and Kim’s DPRK government superiors became increasingly excited. They were shocked by the reaction, he says, because they had no idea how popular the internet was. So Kim became a VIP and part of this new super-VIP treatment was unchaperoned travel. ‘Usually, I was guarded by the army,’ says Kim. But now, in order to find a suitable venue for Rock for Peace, he was allowed to make his own way through the countryside, without an armed escort. This was the government’s big mistake. Kim visited parts of the country he’d never been to before. Parts that foreigners are not allowed to visit — he won’t say where. ‘Ordinary places, with ordinary people. Small towns, small farms.’ What he saw shocked him beyond recovery. ‘The life of ordinary people was horrible,’ he says. ‘Miserable. I can’t ever forget what I’ve seen. People were wearing clothes that hadn’t been washed in years. It was October, and kids were walking around without shoes. There was a small man, about my age — and he was no taller than my little daughter. And the reason? Because there was nothing to eat.’ Kim felt disgusted, and also betrayed. ‘I realised that in Pyongyang, I had only seen very select people so of course they looked fine. They were high society. They ate well and their bodies were healthy, they had nice apartments. But further out, in the countryside, it’s just unbelievable. I’ll never forget.
‘I was once proud of my fatherland, of our army,’ says Kim. ‘Then I went to the small villages and what I saw I’ll never forget. I saw that I had been an idiot and a coward. There was an unforgiveable gap between the rulers and the people.’
So Jean-Baptiste Kim saw the regime for what it was and decided he’d had enough. He wrote a statement to explain his actions, in which he called himself ‘one of the most hypocritical figures in modern Korean history’. In his statement he explicitly rejected the North’s doctrine of sacrificing the individual for the state and expressed deep regret for the decade he’d spent cheerleading for Kim Jong-Il. ‘I was the evil painter who painted fake images over the true phenomenon.’ And he cancelled Rock for Peace. From now on, he says, he would be a simple man. He would sell mobile phones in Surrey.
‘I never explained properly to the government why I left,’ he says. ‘If I had told the truth, who knows? They will kill me.’
Kim looks around at a d
isplay stand with dozens of mobile phones, posters for T-Mobile, an Asiana Airlines clock. ‘I have not given any interviews until now, and this is my last one,’ he says. ‘After this, I want to forget everything. The past is meaningless. I’ve mostly forgotten it already.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 12, 2008