Changing the Story of North Korea

In comparison to South Koreans, North Koreans are on average three inches shorter. More than just a trivial fact, this disparity speaks of the hunger and starvation faced by the people of North Korea, perpetuated by an oppressive regime. Consider this- the two nations have only been separated for sixty-five years. That time, enough for about three generations, is hardly enough to create such a difference through genetic means. The shortness and stunted growth of the people of North Korea is more evidently the result of malnutrition and hunger.

Of course there are a lot more indicators of how bad the food crisis has gotten within North Korea.

Kim Il Sung’s rule established the nation upon communism, yet even the communist system was supposed to properly feed its people, one of the things it could ensure.

However, the Kim regime instead married its breed of communism to hyper-militarism. North Korea has actively tested nuclear explosives in recent years and has been notably absent from signing a number of nuclear non-proliferation treaties. The constant threat of nuclear and missile activity from the country has created a stalemate around any efforts of other nations to intervene in the human rights violations within the country. This interest in nuclear and other large-scale weaponry dates far back to World War II.

While the build up of nuclear arms is a cause for concern anywhere around the world, it adds an extra grave element when you consider the fact that these nuclear efforts have sapped away all kinds of funding away from simple food relief efforts, which under North Korea’s communist structure should be a government obligation. In light of the ongoing food crisis, the excessive spending on military is incredibly disproportionate to the country’s actual needs.

There is far more to this nation than nukes, however. Hunger continues to grow without much relief.

For food, North Korea relies nearly entirely on foreign food aid. However, the management and distribution of this food aid to provide for the people of North Koreans has been so blatantly mismanaged and swindled, that it remains a debate among human rights analysts whether or not continuing aid to North Korea is a good idea. As the authoritarian, militaristic government has proven its aptitude to play favourites and to turn on those who are at the slightest odds with its interests, the food aid that does get distributed winds up in the hands of party loyalists.

This food crisis hit a peak in the 1990s. After the death of Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il continued the oppressive practices of his father’s regime. This time, however, the government negligence and mismanagement were even more severe as they coincided with a major famine that swept through the nation in the early 1990s. As agriculture significantly underproduced, reliance upon foreign aid for food grew even further, and that need was just as inaccessible to the people of North Korea as ever.

While it is always difficult to find accurate statistics about North Korea, particularly regarding its economy, due to a lack of government cooperation with international measuring efforts, it is clear that North Koreans largely live in a state of serious poverty. Many families, cut off from any food aid, scour the countryside looking for wild plants that could be boiled into anything to stave of starvation. Some scores have placed the starvation level of North Korea as comprable to Chad, Sudan, and other Sub-Saharan countries.

Since the 1990s, it is believed that anywhere from 1 to 2 million North Koreans have died as a result of the famine.

Many stories about the rampant poverty within North Korea’s closed borders have come from North Koreans themselves. Many of the stories gathered by reporters about the condition of North Korea have come from ordinary people who have met in secret with reporters in Chinese villages along the Chinese-Korean border. A number of North Korean workers have snuck into China looking for under-the-table jobs to send money back to their families at home. Doing so puts them at an incredible risk to be imprisoned by the Kim regime in concentration camps, if not executed. Their families are also at risk if caught.

The stories that have made it out of North Korea about starvation and dire poverty have come at great risk. They’ve been told by escapees to foreign journalists who aren’t allowed within North Korea. They’ve been told at great unease, in nervousness, knowing the gulag-entailing consequences should their efforts be discovered.

Cities along the Chinese-Korean border, such as Yanji house a number of North Korean refugees. Many of these cities have have large populations of Chinese citizens who are ethnically Korean, so North Koreans are able to blend in, and sometimes find sympathizers. However, these cities also often offer a false security. In Yanji, and other similar places, the police pay rewards to anybody who denounces an illegal North Korean immigrant.

Still, the situation back home is desperate enough so that many North Koreans decide to take this risk. Many wait for the cover of the night, cross through rivers, and crouch in grass to avoid capture. Many are unsuccessful.

Even within China, there is little safety.

The proximity to the border and the intermingling of North Korean refugees and ethnic Korean Chinese attracts an interesting mix of people with various intentions. Some are sympathizers who help to aid refugees into safety. Some seek cheaper manual labourers, and are able to provide North Koreans with some means of earning. Some however, lurk for the purpose of exploiting these individuals. North Korean children are particularly vulnerable to be turned into forced slaves at various factories and sweat shops. For women, a large threat is the chance of being taken and sold into China’s sex trade.

The oppression that stems from North Korean regimes has taken a toll on its people. It’s a crisis about the people. North Korea is much more than nuclear threats, creepy and caricature-esque dictators, and communism. It’s about people.

The North Korea I’ve come to know looks quite different than the North Korea I usually see on TV. Having met North Koreans, lived with them, gotten BBQ with them, I know that the story of North Korea is so much bigger. It’s a story of mass level starvation, political prison camps, and no freedom to worship, move, or gather. Sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s happening, but it isn’t history, it’s actually happening right now. At the same time, the story of North Korea that I know is a story of hope and amazing resilience. The North Korean people are incredible people. I haven’t met one that I don’t think is super amazing.

North Korea isn’t the static political stalemate you keep hearing about. Change is happening in that country, change that will eventually lead to a free North Korea. It’s not something you hear about often though, and that’s a real shame.

Since the government’s public distribution system collapsed, the North Korean people have had to depend on themselves for survival, not the regime. Black markets have opened up, empowering people, and the government has no choice but to allow these to continue as they’ve become engrained in the North Korean life. The current generation of North Koreans- people my age- are the first generation to be growing up relying on these markets instead of their government. The regime is losing its ideological stronghold- in many ways, that’s already been lost.

Also, these black markets have led to more porous borders. Don’t get me wrong, North Korea is still the most closed off country in the world, but what it is today is far different than from a few years ago. People slip across the border at a greater rate, and with them, market goods, family members, lines of communication. Even simple technology-oriented goods, like DVDs of South Korean dramas have allowed North Koreans to see that another world is possible.

At this rate, change will inevitably come to North Korea. When this happens, it is essential that the North Korean people are at the forefront. Change cannot be brought to North Korea- it must come from the people of North Korea, and they must be empowered.

The North Korean people are empowered when the world’s focus is on them before the regime.

This greatly allows movements like Liberty in North Korea to grow. This enhances the funding and support going towards refugee rescue and resettlement. Those efforts allow that flow of communication to grow, and they play a crucial role in informing strategy. Connecting the inside and outside of North Korea.

Public perception must shift from politics to people. That’s where discussions need to happen.

So how does public perception change? From person to person. Each person has the ability to influence the way people think and act. Even if your sphere of influence is limited to three people, those three connect to three more, and movements spread non-stop.

Up to this point, the media’s reporting of North Korea has been incomplete. Nuclear politics and the Kim regime are the stories getting attention. What about Shin, the political prisoner born in a torture camp who escaped to tell his story? What about these markets that are empowering North Korean people?

There are stories that need to be told about the North Korean people. They’re true stories, stories about hope, and stories that improve the situation of some of the world’s most oppressed people. They’re better stories to tell.

Philippe Lazaro2012, LiNK