21/11/2012 04:57 GMT | Updated 22/11/2012 10:53 GMT

'North Korea Is Similar To The UK', Says Defector Seung-Chul (PICTURES)

A North Korean doctor who fled the repressive regime to live in the UK has said he is often struck by how similar North Korea and the UK are - and how he believes the state would envy some of Britain's socialist attributes.

Seung-chul, a former doctor in North Korea, exacted in 2003, fleeing to China, then South Korea and finally to Bradford in West Yorkshire.

North Korean students sing a patriotic song on a street in Pyongyang

Speaking in a NK News live debate on The Huffington Post UK, Seng-chul said he had always been led to believe how selfish, corrupt and money-grabbing Western capitalist societies are, but found his home country had many similar values to the UK.

Speaking through a translator, he said: "I sometimes actually think how similar North Korea and the UK are.

A North Korean woman eats from a stall in Pyongyang

"The regime would tell us exactly what they believed are the assets of the perfect communist state and I find a lot of those characteristics here.

"Schools are free, medical care is free, the hospital system is the same. I feel the UK fits the description of what NK officials think of as a perfect communist state.

"But we were only shown the negative side of capitalism, they said people are pathological, they are selfish, it is wanton.

"And when I came out of North Korea I could see an element of truth in that, there are poor people, homeless people in Western societies.

Kim Jong Un, leader of North Korea, poses with an apprehensive looking family

"Capitalism is not always good, there is still a dark side. South Koreans especially only want to show North Koreans the bright side of capitalism.

"But I think that it's important to show North Koreans the bright and the dark sides, but stress the most important factor is that they are free and open."


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He explained how he previously had no concept of freedom of speech or belief: "To me, China was freedom.

"But when I escaped North Korea and lived in China for a while then I realised that, compared to a lot of countries in the world, the degree of freedom you can enjoy there is limited as well.

"And that's what made me decide to go to South Korea, and I learned there about other European countries, I wanted to learn about the advanced systems of the countries in the West.

The chat, which was organised by independent North Korean news site and filmmakers Nothing To Envy, saw many people ask about the potential for political upheaval in the country, especially after the death of diminutive leader Kim Jong Il, replaced by his young son Kim Jong Un.

"Probably they have a vague idea of change, but they don't dream of radical upheaval, because they have no frame of reference. In terms of reunification, although North Koreans probably want it more than South Koreans because of the obvious material benefits," he said.

North Korean defector Seung-Chul speaking on a livechat with NKNews.Org

"Of course many people do have discontent but what counts is that you have to show the power of people. And the system is so repressive and so controlling, it is hard for people to show what they think.

"The yearning for democracy must be very strong in order for radical change, its still very low among North Korean people.

"I think middle class, intelligent people have to be involved in the movement for change. The leadership for a movement is very important. But those kind of people are not interested in revolting.

The sun is reflected from the top of the 105-floor Ryugyong Hotel, which remains under construction, in Pyongyang

"Our job of the people outside of North Korea is to guide the strength of ordinary people there and give them support.

"The power of the regime is so great, so solid, people cannot do much, in reality it is a feudal society. It is not a democratic, people's republic.

"People do question that a person not even 30 years old, with no experience can lead country, but the Kim family treat the people around them very well, so no-one in power questions it in public."

Coming from a slightly more privileged family, Seng-chul said he had some limited access to outside information, but ordinary people have absolutely none.

"I imagine that I was probably considered upper middle class, I was a doctor, I was a skilled worker. The elite know what is going on outside of North Korea but the majority of people have no idea.

"So the majority of them probably believe that their way of life is quite normal and people on the outside have worst life.

A North Korean musical band perform before the opening of the film festival in Pyongyang

"My older sister, who lives in the capital, in Pyongyang, she does get to read foreign newspapers. People in the highest class they do have an idea about what's going on, but they are not the ones who want changes.

"I had some access to materials from overseas, I had aunts living in China, and my brother in law had lived in the United States, and he brought newspapers when he visited North Korea.

"Looking at those newspapers I really wanted to check out by myself to see if those things I read about actually existed, that was what really spurred me on to leave."

North Korean men stand next to a field which was damaged by July flooding in Songchon County

As a medical student, seeing the starvation and disease of ordinary Koreans had also been one of the things which spurred him to leave. "Your job is to try and save people's life, and you see so many people dying of hunger and there is nothing you can do about.

"People say that the main cause of massive death is hunger, but as a medical student I thought what was more fatal was infectious diseases. And these are diseases that a couple of tablets could have cured.

"So many lives could have been saved. In my opinion North Koreans, because they have not been exposed to much medicine, would only have needed a small dose, that would have been effective. But we never had the medicine.

"I personally think doctors in North Korea are very capable, there is no medical technology so doctors must depend on their own skills. We didn't even have a stethoscope in one hospital."

Alex Hoban, co-director of NK News, said they wanted to provide people in the West with an opportunity to learn about everyday life in the country, and that the livechat was based on a column they had begun called "Ask A North Korean".

He told The Huffington Post UK: "It sounded strange when Seung-Chul suggested North Korea and the United Kingdom have lots in common - free schools, healthcare - but it was an important reminder that between the autocratic politics of the elite at the top, and the horrors of those living at the bottom, there is a huge middle swathe in North Korea who do find ways to make life function, and it's in this middle ground that we are reminded that North Koreas lives that can be as varied and dynamic as anyone else's."

Nothing to Envy director Andy Glynne, who is making an animated feature film about ordinary lives in North Korea based on the award-winning book by LA Times Journalist, Barbara Demick, told The Huffington Post UK: "It is important that we get testimonies like his out into the public domain; without these voices there is a noticeable gap in the debate surrounding North Korea.

"I think we all want to hear it from the horse's mouth - as demonstrated by the number of people who tuned in - and this is something that is inherent to the Nothing to Envy project, providing a platform not only for discussing North Korea but also helping defectors find a way of telling their own accounts and reaching a global audience."