Page last updated at 09:43 GMT, Friday, 25 June 2010 10:43 UK

'If England is heaven then North Korea is hell'

Kim Joo-il
Mr Kim has not been able to contact his family since he defected

Kim Joo-il was born in 1973 in North Korea. He defected in August 2005 and now lives in the UK. He told his story to the BBC World Service programme The World Today.

When I lived in North Korea many people were experiencing hard times because of hunger, malnutrition and the poor economy.

I joined the military in the early 1990s. I started at the bottom and I worked my way up and became a captain. I was in the military for eight years.

I was always taught how great North Korean society is and how superior it is, but while I was in the military I started to question my education. I realised that there are so many contradictions. Also, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are worshipped there as Gods.

I started to wonder whether there was another society outside of North Korea - and whether it would be better. I thought about it for a long time and I wanted to find out, so I decided to defect. I also wanted to change North Korean society.

Death by starvation

At school they taught us that North Korean society is the best in the world and other countries envy North Koreans, but I had seen people die every day from hunger and so many soldiers ran away from the army I could feel the contradiction every day.

As many as 30% of the soldiers in one unit were suffering from malnutrition and 20% of soldiers defected.

Once I was sent on a mission to find these defectors - while I was on this mission, I went home and found out that my nephew had died of hunger - there was nothing to eat. This made me question the society I was living in even more and strengthened my resolve to defect.

Nowadays, North Korea is using international aid for military purposes and developing nuclear weapons and missiles. It is becoming a country which is perceived as a threat to the international community.

Recently the North Koreans attacked the South Korean warship, Cheonan - creating tension in the Korean peninsula. That made the North Korean people suffer even more.

I had no passport, no visa, and no money when I entered China - all I had was my bare hands

When I was in North Korea, when I heard of similar stories to this, I always thought that victory for Kim Jong-il or Kim Il-sung was a heroic thing.

But now I'm outside North Korea and I realise that the country keeps doing these things in order to avoid isolation.

This is part of their strategy. They are at the edge of a cliff and this is the only way to avoid being isolated by the international community.

It took a long time for me to decide to defect. That's because I knew what my family, friends and neighbours would go through if I defected. I was worried about my parents.

I always wanted to defect but it was very difficult to do it. Everyone who has parents will understand how I felt. I haven't been able to contact my parents since I left and so I don't know what happened to them.

When I defected, I was wearing a uniform because I was still in the military, but I had no passport, no visa, and no money when I entered China. All I had was my bare hands.

I crossed the river which runs along the border with North Korea and China at night. There were guards on the border and they would have shot me if they had seen me but I managed to swim across to China.

Although China was much better than North Korea, I had many difficulties during my year there, I had no money and had to beg on the street every day.

Thrown in prison

An NGO helped me get into Vietnam. I took a train to the border and then a train to Hanoi and then walked for three days.

But I realised that Vietnam wasn't a democratic society either, so decided to go to Cambodia.

I was arrested twice by Vietnamese guards as I tried to cross the swamps on the border. I escaped from prison and on my third attempt made it into Cambodia. Then I went to Thailand and then finally I came to the UK in October 2007 as an illegal immigrant.

I was able to claim asylum status and now I have a family in the UK, and a child. I have learnt what true democracy is. If England is heaven then North Korea is hell.

The North Korean people do not know what democracy is. But every day, when I wake up, I feel that I want to build a democratic society in North Korea itself.

What I hope for is that Britain and the international community can help North Korea to change its regime so that the North Korean people can end their miserable lives and live in a democracy that respects their human rights.

You can hear the full interview with Kim Joo-il on the The World Today, BBC World Service radio, on Saturday between 0600 and 0900 BST

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