The officer came upon a leaflet in 1997 that described how Koreans across the Demilitarized Zone lived. "I became sharply aware of this contradiction," he says.
It took him nine days to travel the roughly 120 miles from the capital Pyongyang to Sinuiju in northwestern North Korea on the border with China. There, he saw across the river what life could actually be like. He lived in Sinuiju for four years before he was finally able to bribe a border guard with food to let him swim across the river into China's Jilin province.
North Korea eventually staggered out of the crisis in the late 1990s due largely to food imports from the U.S., China and South Korea, but not before the average citizen learned how to take care of himself. Black markets became a commonplace solution to finding food, medicine and other necessities, and remain a commonly used tool today.
Through these channels, and some newly established legitimate trade with China, North Koreans see more of the world around them.
"They're getting more and more information about the outside world, especially DVDs of dramas of South Korea that show how wealthy the country is, or thumb drives with material on them, much coming from China," says David Straub, associate director of the Korean Studies Program at Stanford University. This amounts to more and more anecdotal information proving the leadership has been lying to its citizenry, he says.
"It's not possible to predict the outcome," he says. "We're some time from a tipping point, but the trends are not good if you're a North Korean leader."
The response from North Koreans will not likely include a popular revolution, the defector says. The regime maintains strict social and physical control and there are already signs of that strengthening. A "broker" or fixer used to charge $30 U.S. dollars to arrange a border crossing in 2000, when this officer left North Korea. Today that costs $5,000.
What is more likely, he says, is violence between the privileged and those who are hungry.
Stanford's Armstrong doubts the U.S. or other allies would get involved in any infighting within North Korea, unless it escalated to extreme levels and involved the military. Violent protests occur in China regularly, he adds, but that has done little to weaken the communist government there.
"It would have to be something pretty big. It would have to be a real breakdown of social or political order," he says. "If there were conflict between factions in the military, then intervention might be possible."
The United States has sent ships bearing tactical nuclear weapons to the region to participate in Foal Eagle Exercise 2013 in tandem with South Korea, however a Pentagon spokeswoman says the increased U.S. Navy presence is unrelated to North Korea's recent threats.