The North Korean Humanitarian Dilemma

Political Prison Camp 14, North Korea

Political Prison Camp 14, North Korea

Once again, we wait with bated breath and watch while North Korea rattles its saber, and once again, we hope that it is merely talk and not a prelude to something more. Of course, the American media has made hay over the renewed threats being issued by the rogue state, but in their frenzy, they have lost sight of the true tragedy of the situation: the 25 million Koreans who are suffering as a result of this isolated, poor, nation.

While the threats to our allies South Korea and Japan should not be downplayed, North Korea does not possess the technology to directly attack the U.S. Nor, does it seem, that they possess the desire to kick-off Korean War 2.0. Instead, this is all very vocal (and admittedly scary) posturing on the world stage.

We should be horrified by the goings-on in the North, but not because of the weapons of mass destruction they posses, but because their whole system is a weapon of mass destruction against their own people.

I feel a deep connection with North Korea, despite the fact that I’ve never been. For a year and a half I would watch the sunset over North Korea in the distance, and wonder about the unseen lives just over the hills on the horizon. I read books, most notably Nothing to EnvyThe Aquariums of Pyongyang, and Escape from Camp 14. Each book gave a terrifying glimpse behind the closed borders, and each one made me ache with a desire to do something to end such suffering, suffering that was happening just over the barbed wire fence.

The prison camp system is vast in North Korea, with an estimated 150,000-200,000 prisoners being kept there. The majority of the prisoners are not there for opposing the state, but because they are related (within three generations) to someone who has. Innocent Koreans are born, live, and die inside the electrified boundaries, never leaning about the outside world. They live every day hungry, fearful of the guards, and see their fellow prisoners beaten and murdered for the slightest malfeasance. Shin Dong-Hyuk (please see video, below), the only prisoner known to be born inside a prison camp and escape was the subject of the aforementioned book, Escape from Camp 14. He learned only learned about the outside world at 23, and the only reason he wanted to escape was to get a full stomach for the first time in his life. 

Shin was fortunate to get a full stomach upon his escape. Over the last two decades, North Korea has suffered through famine after famine. In the mid-90s alone, estimates of the number of deaths from famine range from several hundred thousand to 3.5 million. It is impossible to say for certain, but what can be said is that many millions more went hungry on a daily basis for many years. The book Nothing to Envy gives first-hand accounts of the famine years, and what it took to survive them. Now in the South, many survivors tell how they cannot look another North Korean in the eyes, for the knowledge of what they had to do just to keep on living. If, for instance, they could help out a starving child, or keep their meager ration to themselves, they would choose the latter and be haunted years later by the former.

A breath-taking account comes from a doctor who escaped into China after years of famine. Outside of a home, she found a bowl of rice with meat on top; she had not seen rice, let alone meat, in years. Suddenly, a dog came running up, and she realized that the dogs in China were eating better than the doctors in North Korea.

I could go on. This is just a small sample of the massive amount of suffering going on in North Korea.

We don’t talk about the human element. Perhaps it’s too painful. Perhaps it would necessitate actually doing something about the situation. I don’t know.

What I do know is that we talk about the fictional threat North Korea poses to us, and we talk at great lengths about a visit from an eccentric former basketball player. We laugh at their flamboyant ceremonies, and their young leader looking intently through binoculars. We give North Korea exactly what they want: international attention about the threat they want to pose, and we refuse to talk about the millions of people suffering under their regime.

So, I’m trying to do my part. In the following interview, which I sincerely hope you watch, you’ll see Shin talk about the horrors of life in a North Korean prison camp, and his mission to get the word out. We like to think of freedom in terms of liberties like free speech or the freedom of religion, but Shin thinks of freedom as broiled chicken. The right to food is so basic, we all take it for granted. He’s made it his mission to speak out publicly against the regime, and to shine a spotlight on the human rights violations happening at this very moment. So please, don’t think about Kim Jong Un, think about the millions suffering under his totalitarian regime.

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