Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Oct. 19, 2016.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Oct. 19, 2016.

The 2016 U.S. presidential race, now in the homestretch, has been full of insults, rumors and name-calling — so many that some people are beginning to have doubts about the integrity of American democracy. But for a small group of refugees, North Koreans who have come a long way to reach the U.S., the divisive discourse and outright hostilities come as a pleasant shock, giving them a taste of what real democracy is like.

"It is hilarious to see how [the two presidential nominees] go after each other," said Charles Kim, a North Korean refugee who entered the U.S. in 2008.

"It seems very distasteful and inappropriate on the surface, but if you look at it in depth, you'll see how good democracy is," the Virginia resident added. "You can say whatever you want to say, as the freedom of speech is guaranteed, and the people can point their fingers at the president without any restraint."

Kim, owner of a small dry-cleaning business who has been paying close attention to the U.S. election — from primaries to conventions and debates — says the American voting system stands in stark contrast to the one in his homeland.

Eye-opening experience

Ruled by a despotic dynasty for more than 65 years, North Korea is a de facto one-party state in which elections are a mere formality, Kim says, to legitimize the dominance of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea. Local elections take place every five years to select deputies at provincial, city and county-assembly levels, with only one approved candidate standing for each of the 687 electoral districts. Last year, the hermit regime saw a 99.7 percent voter turnout and achieved a 100 percent approval rating.

Hong Kong US Presidential Debate Reax
A newspaper front page featuring North Korea former leader Kim Jong II is displayed as people watch live broadcasting of the U.S. presidential debate between Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, at Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong, Sept. 27, 2016.

Rejecting one's right to vote often results in bloodshed, incarceration in prison camps or even death, says Kim, adding, "There's no place on Earth like North Korea."

Another North Korean refugee, David Shin of Washington state on the U.S. Pacific coast, says he appreciates the transparency and freedom of expression in American elections — important democratic values that do not exist in North Korea.

"I like how the candidates are transparent about their past, present, their achievements and even their flaws," Shin said. "People here are also granted freedom to select a candidate whose views align with their own."

Heading into the final two weeks of the presidential election, a number of North Koreans living in the U.S. seem to be highly interested, with many closely following the election and keenly awaiting the results.

Tight race

Based on interviews conducted by VOA last week, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her Republican opponent Donald Trump are running neck and neck among North Korean voters, whose preferences appear to be largely determined by the two nominees' positions on how to deal with the North's nuclear program and the lack of human rights there.

Deborah Choi, who entered the U.S. in 2006, says she will vote for Clinton, who she believes can put the brakes on escalating human rights violations in the communist country, because of her extensive knowledge and experience in politics.

"Of all the candidates, I heard Hillary has the most comprehensive knowledge about North Korean human rights issues and North Korea in general," said Choi, who runs a seafood restaurant in Virginia. "I would like to see her devising policies that would be of help in checking violations of human rights."

Also a Clinton supporter, Shin says the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee rhetoric of the Trump campaign is spurring him to give his vote to the former senator from New York.

"I hope the new president of the United States is someone who cares about the world peace," Shin said. "I've become worried that a war would break out, after hearing Trump's hate speech against Muslim countries and about building a wall [along the U.S.-Mexico border]."

Dismissing the real estate mogul's incendiary comments, some North Korean defectors said they intended to vote for Trump because they supported his pledge to put more pressure on China to rein in its North Korean ally.

"The regime [in Pyongyang] didn't even budge, and now it's a huge threat," said Kim, referring to U.N. Security Council sanctions that, in his opinion, were utterly ineffective. "If Hillary pursues Obama's policies over the next four or maybe eight years, North Korea will likely complete their nuclear program."

Clinton's controversial email scandal — the mishandling of classified information through an unsecured email server during her tenure as U.S. secretary of state — seems to have undercut support among some North Korean refugees.

"It feels like Clinton is a well-decorated person but with a lot of things to hide," said Beth Lee, a California resident since 2009, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym. "We need to have someone who has a big mouth, although Trump says things that shouldn't be said in public places."

Since enactment of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, the U.S. has been admitting a small number of refugees from North Korea. The first refugees arrived in 2006; as of this month, there were 203 North Koreans scattered throughout the U.S.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA Korean service.

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