Life inside North Korea
Citizens of North Korea are taught through the Juche ideology, based on Kim II Sung’s supremacy, that their lives are nurtured and legitimized by the leadership of the Kim dynasty. This ideological manipulation alters the individual identities of North Koreans that steals their own sense of self; leaving nothing but a mere echo of rights or freedom.
Even though laws and regulations exist in the North Korea, citizens are forced to obey the “The Worker’s Party’s Ten Principles of the Establishment of a Unitary Ideology System”. The North Korean people forcibly memorize these principals and regard them as the standard by which they must live their lives. Kim Il-Sun is the only thoughts that is allowed into the consciousnesses of North Korean citizens. As the principals form the basis of everything in society; people can neither be skeptical of the state nor start efforts to make a change as criticizing the state is seen as a crime for which one’s entire family can be punished. Telling our defectors’ stories must therefore remain faceless and their last name won’t be published.
“No one chooses to be born in North Korea”. – Kyu-Min (defected in 1999).
North Korea is the world’s most secretive state and it can be difficult to get a clear picture of the daily lives of its 25 millions citizens. Visits to the country are strictly limited and closely monitored. Statistics provided by the government are often inflated or deflated for the government’s convenience. One way to learn about the reality of North Korea is to ask those who managed to escape; the struggles North Koreans face everyday. The lack of essential goods, false imprisonment, forced labor, and propaganda that are reasons why 30 208 in total and around 1 414 in the year 2016 – risked their lives to escape despite the perilous journey through China and East Asia.
The lack of essential goods
“We were barely given any money or rations from work and we were always hungry” – Ah-Young, textile factory worker
Some of the major issues in North Korea is the consistent famine and malnutrition. There are two ways North Koreans can acquire food: through the small legal or black markets and through government-provided rations. According to the World Food Program, the North Korean government distributed 400 grams daily per person in January of 2017. That is significantly below the U.N.-recommended amount of 600 grams daily per person.
North Koreans are regularly the victims of floods and droughts with the last flood in 2016 killed 133 people. The government is unequipped to face this situation and to have a significant impact on the daily rations of North Koreans. During the “Arduous March”, a propaganda idiom for the time from 1994 to 1998 where North Korea suffered from extreme famine, around one million people died from starvation. Children are the first victims of malnutrition where North Korea have a child mortality rate ten times higher than in South Korea.
“Since there isn’t anything to eat in North Korea, we eat everything we can get. We eat roots and anything that is chewable […] There was a mother who entrusted the nursery with her three kids. But all three starved to death” – Jung Suk, nursery nurse (defected in 2013).
”Because there were no medications and insufficient instruments, there was nothing I could do as a doctor. Even the locals stopped searching for a doctor – Chui-Min, general practitioner (defected in 2005).
As medicine in hospitals are usually to expensive, when sick North Koreans head to the Jangmadang, the black markets, to buyt the medicine that they can find. They typically treat themselves at home. In hospitals, instruments are usually outdated and unsafe due to poor maintenance and unstable power conditions.
Unstable power conditions makes it difficult to stay warm during the winter, even in the elite apartments in Pyongyang. Outside of the capital, North Koreans usually burn coal to stay warm, putting themselves at risk for respiratory problems.. The temperatures can go down to -13°C (8.5F) during the day in the winter. “Many children would sleep on the train railroads, because whenever a train passed by, the rails would be warm. Some children who had left their legs on the rails would be dismembered by passing trains” – Ok-Ju, surgical nurse (defected in 1997).
Every North Korean man is also required to enroll in the army for a minimum of ten years, during which they hardly get any vacation days. North Koreans are taught to hate the external world, especially the US and South Korea as their “main enemies”.
”In North Korea, one should not try to act based on what they think but instead, one should act how a person is supposed to act. For instance, when talking about America, one should always be mad” – Kyn-Min, movie director (defected in 1999).
This helps create a sense of patriotism and assure North Koreans’ eternal affection for the Kim family, who they see as protectors.
In practice camp, No. 18 imprisons relatives of perpetrators in accordance with the “guilt by association” system. In North Korea, one can be punished for a crime he did not commit; guilt by association means relatives to the offender, up to three generations, will be imprisoned as well. Children are born and raised in camps because their parents are imprisoned for a crime their grandparents committed, and often, they do not know why. It is a powerful form of coercion for those who wish to escape to South Korea as they know their families will pay the price.
”A diplomat cannot take his entire family with him when he goes abroad. Some members have to be left in Korea, essentially, as hostages” – Yeong-Geon, diplomat (defected in 2012).
”Serious offenders are sent to camp number 25, a place you cannot exit alive” – Min-Chul (former detainee of camp No. 15)
The exact population of the camp is being discussed. Some scholars say it is a camp for political offenders only, others for felons, religious leaders and members of factions. Min-Chul, one of the defectors who agreed to talk to us about his experience in the camps, recalls the case of a railroad employee who distributed Bibles from China in his town.
”I remember the night he got his final sentence. He had a very comfortable smile when he said ‘I was sentenced to 15 years in Su-Sung concentration camp’ [camp No.25] […] Even when he was being dragged out of the jail, he sang hymns. I cannot forget this scene”.
North Koreans are taught to idolize the Kim family and fight for their country from an early age. The education system is designed around this purpose.
Propaganda is at every corner, and in every aspects of one’s life : movies, television shows, theater, comic-books, posters in the street… North Koreans are required to visit monuments raised to Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il several times a months and have framed pictures of their “beloved leaders” in their house that they are required to clean every day.
As most of them don’t have the background and money sufficient to go to the university after they graduate from high school, North Koreans are sent to work on collective farms, factories, construction sites, etc. They do not get to choose their job, and are submitted to intense hours of work, up to 12 or 16 hours per day.
”I had to stand up all day. In six years both my legs’ joints were broken so I had to stay in a hospital. I was glad, because it meant I could finally rest” – Ah-Young, textile factory worker (defected in 2009).
In exchange for their work, they receive little pay and food. In collective farms, for instance, each worker is given a quota per day, and when the quota is not met, then the worker does not get anything to eat. Working on construction sites and in mines can be dangerous, but if hurt, the North Koreans do not get any compensation for their injuries.