By Abigail Roberts
Whilst the pandemic seems to be all that we see on the news, all we talk about, and all that we hear about, other causes of suffering continue to threaten lives under the radar. Specifically, one issue that recently has ceased to become a part of our nightly updates due to the ceasing of its more blatant nuclear threats – or perhaps due to the threatening nature of the country’s leader, and the lack of information we have access to, is the oppressive and autocratic regime of North Korea.
Whilst we all know about the injustices in North Korea, there are things that are not spoken about that the North Korean government goes to extreme lengths to cover up. The theme park, ski resort and magnificent parades that foreigners encounter when visiting the country distract them from the 10.5 million North Koreans who are undernourished in a population of 25 million. Its neighbouring country, South Korea, enjoys abundant freedom and wealth in comparison, making us question what life for North Korean people could be like without an oppressive Dictatorship. Whilst there has been much media attention on issues such as the protests in Hong Kong, there has not been nearly as much media attention on North Korea despite the continued adversities the people face. It is so important today that we stand in solidarity with all people from the international community, and work together to build a better, healthier, happier world.
Hyeonseo Lee’s Story
Hyeonseo Lee is a young North Korean who managed to flee the autocratic and oppressive country. Growing up in North Korea she had been taught to believe her country was the ‘best in the world,’ and that those in other countries suffered greatly, such as their “enemy” countries America and South Korea. Her school years consisted of studying the leader of the time, “Kim Il-Sung” ,yet the students were not taught about the outside world. She saw her first public execution at age seven, thinking this was normal. She herself had not been exposed to the hunger of poorer North Koreans as she was from a reasonably wealthy family until she read a letter of her mother’s co-worker’s family. This letter stated, “when you read this, our five family members will not exist…because we haven’t eaten for the past three weeks. We are lying on the floor together and our bodies are so weak, we are waiting to die.” She later witnessed a dead woman lying on the ground with a helpless starving child in her arms. Despite a large portion of the country being malnourished, Lee had never before heard of her fellow North Koreans suffering, especially in the famine of the 90s where more than a million people died of hunger, or survived on grass, bugs and tree bark. Lee lived near the Yalu river between North Korea and China which was often used by North Koreans to flee, however most of them are shot or die on the journey, their bodies that she witnessed floating down the river.
Lee was sent to China as a young girl and did not live with her family for 14 years. She was considered an illegal migrant, making life very dangerous due to the danger her identity would be revealed and she would face a devastating fate by being deported back to North Korea. She was once brought to the police station for interrogation due to accusations of being North Korean, however her Chinese language abilities fatefully saved her from being imprisoned or deported, just like the countless North Korean refugees who are tortured, imprisoned, or publicly executed when they are deported. Ten years later, she took the risk of going to South Korea, beginning a new life with much struggle however began studying to be accepted into university. However, during the beginning of the new life she had created, she was informed that the North Korean government had discovered that she had sent money to her family, meaning her family was to be forcibly removed to the desolate countryside. Lee panicked and planned to get her family out of North Korea, yet it was almost impossible to achieve this. She had to guide her family more than 2,000 miles in China and Southeast Asia due to their inability to speak Chinese, almost being caught many times. On one occasion when her family was interrogated by a Chinese officer, Lee, who could speak Chinese herself impulsively told the officer they were deaf people she was chaperoning, and fatefully she was not caught. She then had to spend almost all of the money she had left to bribe the guards at the border to get into Laos, however her family was arrested in the Capital. She had previously used all of her remaining money for bribes to release her family and lost hope.
A New Beggining
However, a stranger approached her, listened to her story and out of compassion paid for her family’s release as well as two other North Koreans. This moment was heavily significant in her life as the man told her he was doing this to “help the North Korean people,” providing Lee with a sense of hope for her and her people. Lee was later reunited with her family in South Korea, however like many North Korean refugees they had no money and relied on the international community for support. She says,
“We can benefit from the international community for education, English language training, job training and more. We can also act as a bridge between the people inside North Korea and the outside world. I’ve been so lucky… so I want to give aspiring North Koreans a chance.. I’m confident that you will see more and more North Koreans succeeding all over the world.”
Yeonmi Park’s Story
A similar tale of liberation from the horrors of North Korea can be seen in Yeonmi Park’s story, who also successfully escaped. She says, “I’ve seen the horrors that humans can inflict, but I’ve also witnessed acts of kindness and sacrifice in the worst circumstances… I also know that the spark of human dignity is never completely extinguished and that given the oxygen of freedom and the power of love, it can grow again.” She grew up in the coldest part of North Korea, and with a loving mother and father. However, her understanding of reality was twisted by this autocratic regime, who controlled even the children’s books she read, placing lies in these books in an attempt to indoctrinate their readers. The leaders of her country were narrated as “mystical,” and it was taught that Kim Jong could control the weather with his mind, brainwashing citizens into adoration.
Similarly to Lee, she was taught to hate “enemy nations,” and was under the impression that such countries lived in poverty and oppression. Propaganda, plagued her textbooks, with math questions asking, “If you kill one American bastard and your comrade kills two, how many dead American bastards do you have?” Just like Lee, she witnessed public executions. Human life was valued less than that of an animal, and the government let their people starve.
She escaped the regime with her mother after crossing the Yalu River to China. She says, “betraying the Dear Leader was probably the hardest thing I had ever done.” However, when they reached China they were taken by human traffickers, her mother sold to be the servant of a farmer and 13 year old Yeonmi becoming the slave to a trafficker. They eventually found freedom with the assistance of an underground Protestant mission that assisted North Koreans in leaving China. Finally, they reached South Korea and experience freedom today. She now informs others of the horrors experienced by those who escape North Korea: “Seventy percent of North Korean women and teenage girls are victimized. Sometimes sold for as little as two hundred dollars.”
The Threats Associated with Intervention
Ultimately, unlike the Coronavirus there are little measures that we can take to have an impact on this oppression. This is because the country has engaged in the development of nuclear weapons, posing an extreme threat to those who attempt to interfere as it comes even closer to creating a nuclear missile. We cannot even communicate with the brainwashed victims of the regime, due to the governments complete control over media. There have been attempts from the UN at placing sanctions on the country against its weapons programme, as well as providing food aid to the country; yet these initiatives have shown little benefit. Furthermore, military action against the country would pose the risk of high casualties for innocent citizens, and for outsiders to attempt to find its nuclear stockpile would be impossible as this is buried underground. The country therefore has made it essentially impossible to intervene through its threatening weaponry, its missiles which threaten the country of South Korea, and its large number of troops.
However, what we must take away from this is gratitude, hope and empathy – and shift our focus to the ongoing suffering of the international community. We must have empathy for those North Koreans who successfully flee their country and provide them with extensive assistance if they are to arrive in Australia. We must maintain hope that the people will be liberated and receive the freedom and knowledge they have been denied of, and should have gratitude for the freedom we have in such a democratic, stable and wealthy country.