The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea receives news coverage quite often due to infamous dictator Kim Jong Un and his run-ins with the United States in regard to nuclear weaponry. While this creates certain awareness of the country and sheds light on a notorious leader, much of the reporting on North Korea falls short and glosses over the actual experiences of the approximately 25 million citizens living in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Within that 25 million may also exist the family my grandmother was separated from when the two Koreas split.
The history between North and South Korea and its division at the 38th parallel is a recent product of the intervention of the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. What most people don’t realize is that when the Korean War ended in 1953, there were many families separated by the division, and it is unknown today how many relatives have been lost to either side of the heavily militarized borders. There have been some reunions for families, but North Korea commonly uses these reconciliations as bargaining tactics, and due to limitations, most South Koreans who have been separated pass away before they can reunite with lost family members.
Due to news coverage, North Korea has become a constant talking piece of a poisonous, authoritarian regime. The Kim family is known internationally for their nuclear weapon threats and has become a joke for the absurdity of how much power they believe they hold. However, many news outlets overlook the North Korean defectors and people stuck under the hold of this authoritarian regime. Because of politics, the stories of Koreans have been underrepresented, and North Korean refugees have been grossly overlooked.
Because of North Korea’s strict regime and distrust of other countries, the information about what goes on inside the country is limited. But nonprofits such as Liberty in North Korea have helped us understand that North Koreans have many restrictions imposed by the government that include no freedom of movement, speech, information or religion. Furthermore, there are horrifying violations of human rights in North Korea like chronic food shortages, since most of the food grown in the country goes toward the military.
North Koreans also suffer from political prison camps, public executions and collective punishment. According to the U.S. Department of State, between 80,000 and 120,000 North Koreans are in prison and brutal physical labor camps. Prisoners face torture and beatings, and women are especially predisposed to trafficking and coercion. Punishments are also intergenerational, as the 1972 law of “three generations of punishment” states that if one person is convicted of a crime, their immediate family may also be convicted, along with their next two generations.
The North Korean defectors who choose to escape have an arduous journey ahead, as they aren’t able to simply cross over the border to South Korea due to its heavy militarization. They often have to escape through China, where the government has an agreement with North Korea to bring back any defectors they discover. People who return to North Korea after escaping are at risk of forced labor, forced abortions and interrogation. There are currently programs and activists who help North Koreans at checkpoints — that have even built an underground railroad to bring them to freedom.
In the first week of November, the University of Michigan’s chapter of Liberty in North Korea held an event where two North Korean defectors, Jeongyol Ri and Ilhyeok Kim, came to share their stories and spread awareness about North Korean people. They both want to use their first-hand experiences to educate the world about the people behind the authoritarian regime and how to properly rectify the country.
“For the South Korean government, they have been talking about the ‘peace’ for the longest time, but nothing has been solved,” Kim told me in Korean. “Likewise, for the United States, they always talk about denuclearization, but there have been no improvements in the human rights violations that have occurred. Thus, I feel it is more efficient to focus on the North Korean people.”
The United States often focuses on the politics with North Korea and denuclearization talks, but we need to listen to the stories of defectors who are able to give us knowledge about the lives of North Koreans.
“As always, the North Korean regime lies. The regime is really scared of showing the reality of North Korea. To show the world the reality, it’s important North Koreans share their stories,” Ri said to me in Korean.
While the efforts in denuclearizing and attempting to negotiate with Kim Jong Un are important, the results have been stagnant. The main issue is that we are politicizing a country over the welfare of millions of people, who are suffering due to a lack of liberty. We take certain freedoms for granted, especially in the United States, and by turning our focus to people over politics, the results could be the proper form of peace we are constantly striving for with North Korea. With the resources and finite amount of information we have on the country, we need to utilize the scarce knowledge efficiently and for the correct purpose.
If you would like to contribute to Liberty in North Korea, a non-profit with proceeds that go toward liberating North Korean defectors, please donate at libertyinnorthkorea.org.
Cheryn Hong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.