Under the Juche ideology, based on Kim Il-Sung’s supremacy, citizens of North Korea are taught that their lives are nurtured and legitimized by the leadership of the Kim dynasty. This ideological manipulation alters the individual identities of North Koreans or, in other words, steals their own sense of self, leaving nothing but a mere echo of rights or freedoms.
Although 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 committing these principals to memory, regard them as the standard by which they must live their lives. The only thoughts allowed into the consciousnesses of North Korean citizens are those of Kim Il-Sung. As the principals form the basis of everything in society, people can neither be skeptical of the state nor start efforts of change. They have no choice but to accept punishments no matter how unjustly they are dealt.
As criticizing the state is seen as a crime for which one’s entire family can be punished, when telling their stories defectors must remain faceless; their last name won’t be published on this page either.
“No one chooses to be born in North Korea”. - Kyu-Min (defected in 1999).
Since North Korea is the world’s most secretive state, 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 stories they tell reveal the struggles North Koreans face everyday: the lack of essential goods, false imprisonment, forced labor, propaganda, all different reasons why some - 30, 208 in total and 1,414 in 2016 alone - risk their lives to escape despite the perilous journey through China and East Asia..
- The lack of essential goods
Food, medicine, heating, electricity
“We were barely given any money or rations from work and we were always hungry” - Ah-Young, textile factory worker.
As many defectors have described, one of the major issue is North Korea is 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, 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 extreme famine, around one million people died from starvation - and the real number could be higher. Children are the first victims of malnutrition, and the child mortality rate in North Korea is 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)
Food is not the only thing lacking in North Korea, medicine is also in short supply. “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 - Chul-Min, general practitioner (defected in 2005). As medicine in hospitals are usually too expensive, when sick North Koreans head to the Jangmadang, the black markets, to buy 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 also make 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).
- False imprisonment
Though North Korea won’t admit it, there are many concentration camps located in the country. . Approximately six of them are for political prisoners. The State Political Security Department (SPSD) runs No. 14 in Gae-Chun, No. 15 in Yo-Deok, No. 16 in Wha-Sung, No. 22 in Hoi-Ryung and No. 25 in Su-Sung (Chung-Jin), and No. 18 in Buk-Chang is run by People’s Security Council. It is not uncommon for prisoners to be sentenced without trial, and in the camps, prisoners are beaten, starved, and forced to perform manual labor.
In practice, camp No. 18 imprisons relatives of perpetrators in accordance with the “guilt by association” system. Indeed, in North Korea, one can be punished for a crime s/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 even 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. Following the same reasoning, “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 No. 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 saying 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”.
- Forced labor
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.
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.
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, their “main enemies”. “In North Korea, one should not try to act based on what they think but, instead, should act like a person is supposed to act. For instance, when talking about America, one should always be mad” - Kyu-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.
Escaping is a huge risk to take; but constant violation of their rights, starvation, exhaustion, fear for their lives and for those they love, motivate more than a thousand North Koreans every year to attempt the journey to freedom.
Most defectors wait for winter to cross the Amnok (Yalu) river, at the border with China, when the water is freezing, but the stream is weaker. There they must avoid the border guards, and hide from Chinese soldiers who patrol looking for defectors; then through China and Laos to reach Thailand, where they can ask for asylum at the South Korean embassy. After long checkings and interrogations, defectors are given the South Korean nationality, and can finally begin a new life.
All testimonies are drawn from “The faceless ones : Story of North Korean inecluctable defects”, a report from PSCORE (2015). If you would like to support PSCORE in its actions for defectors, consider buying the book here
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