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North Korea's real heroes

For those who believe, as I do, that there is room for negotiation to achieve peace and reunification of the Korean Peninsula, hearing a high-ranking North Korean official talking about defectors from his country might change your mind.

"Scum of the earth," he says, before asking me back: "What would you think of people who have been saying bad things about your country?"

He may have thought that such a statement would compel me to agree with him, but I remained silent, thinking to myself, "You're entitled to your opinion, Sir, but I totally disagree with you."

The complete intolerance of Pyongyang hardliners is something the world needs to know about. If you're a movie fan, you might recall the scene from Prisoners, when the priest killed a child abductor because latter confessed he would kill more children if he had the chance. There was no remorse there.

The cruelty of the Kim Jong-un regime has grown more apparent in recent months. Take the case of Otto Warmbier, the American student who fell into a coma after being arrested for a misdemeanour in Pyongyang. He remained comatose for nine months before the North Koreans sent him home, as if to mock the Americans and their vaunted intelligence agencies for never having learned the condition of their countryman. He died days later.

How satisfying such a turn of events must have been for Kim Jong-un -- almost as much as getting more rebounds than Dennis Rodman in a one-on-one basketball game.

For me, the relationship between the former NBA star and the Supreme Leader can only be understood in the context of Space Jam, in which Rodman's former Chicago Bulls teammate Michael Jordan played hoops with Looney Tunes cartoon characters.

Bear in mind also that Rodman's trip to Pyongyang earlier this year was sponsored by PotCoin, a cryptocurrency for the legal marijuana industry, which enjoyed a spike in value for the few days that the spotlight shone on the Rodman travelling circus.

Dennis Rodman may believe he has friends in North Korea, but the fact remains that anyone who visits Pyongyang will only see what North Korean officials want them to see. Only privileged North Koreans get to live in the capital, and you will never meet the 80% who labour in the countryside and barely have enough to eat.

The visitor, of course, has the luxury of not having to agree when listening to what North Korean officials say. And when a senior cadre tells me that defectors are scum, I can only think about the bravery I have learned about from people who have fled the Hermit Kingdom.

An example of defiance and bravery that saved lives? The Third Tunnel, which I recently toured, was discovered in 1978 when the South Korean military was informed of it by North Korean defector Kim Bu-seong, who fled the communist state on Sept 5, 1974.

He had measured the tunnel from observations made above ground and looking at large poplar tree in the southern part of the Demilitarized Zone from the North Korean side. Armed with that knowledge, the South Korean military installed 107 PVC cylinders filled with water, one every two metres, along the suspected invasion route.

On June 10, 1978, one of the cylinders exploded, with water shooting up above the ground from the pressure, to reveal the actual route. Five more cylinders were then installed nearby which led the South Koreans to find the tunnel that North Korea intended to use.

The invasion tunnel was the third of four tunnels that have been discovered so far. The second tunnel was the biggest but the third tunnel, 1,635 metres long, two metres high and two metres wide, and located just 52km from Seoul, was capable of transferring 30,000 soldiers per hour. Kim Bu-seong informed the South Korean military that there could be up to 30 tunnels that have yet to be discovered.

If the defector had not alerted South Korean authorities, North Korean troops might have made it to downtown Seoul within hours.

All North Korean defectors who talk to journalists and appear on television are marked for death by the communist state, but I still get to use the real names and pictures of those I have interviewed because they want the world to hear about the situation their fellow countrymen are suffering through.

They are certainly not scum. For me, they are heroes.

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