Mar 6, 2013

A Word (or Several) About North Korea

North Korea has been in the news a lot lately. Most of it is the usual blustering and saber-rattling, the sheer ridiculousness of which makes it difficult to take Kim Jong Un seriously as a leader. He's this portly 20-something guy with a goofy haircut who makes frequent, absurd-sounding threats towards South Korea and the Western world. Visits to North Korea are closely guarded by the state and portray an anachronistic slice of Stalinist paradise. As most of America (hopefully) knows, Dennis Rodman recently took a trip to the Hermit Kingdom and came away spouting about how great a guy Kim is.

But dig a little deeper, and your stomach will quickly start to turn.

It's easy to dismiss Kim Jong Un's threats to the western world as the empty gestures of a man who has been backed into a corner. But while we may question the validity of his promises to strike Seoul, one thing we cannot question is the reality of the atrocious human rights violations happening in his country. He may seem ridiculous on the outside, but his control over the country, inherited from his father, is anything but.

As I write this, human rights groups estimate that as many as 250,000 North Koreans are being worked to death in prison camps. This isn't a rumor or an urban legend. Anyone with access to Google Earth can see them for themselves-- enormous sprawling compounds that stretch on and on through narrow valleys in the middle of the country.  A quarter of a million people. And that's just right now. These camps have existed for years. Entire generations have lived and died inside of these camps. If there are a quarter of a million people imprisoned at this moment, how many more have died before them?

We don't even have to look down from above anymore. The trickle of information that used to come out of the hermit kingdom is turning into a small stream. One book in particular, Escape from Camp 14, is gaining popularity and, in my opinion, is a must-read for anyone who... no, actually I think it's a must-read for everyone. It's not very long.

 Remember those books about the Holocaust you read in high school and college? Remember how shocked you were that these things actually happened, and wondered how people could sit back and watch? This book is right up there with those, only these things are still happening. We're the ones who are sitting back and allowing it to happen, the ones who chuckle at websites dedicated to pictures of Kim Jong Il looking at things and at the thought of Kim Jong Un having a conversation with Dennis Rodman.

This all became very real for me when Very Special Visitor and I took a day trip to the DMZ. It's an incredibly sobering experience. Sure, it's amusing to look at the empty propaganda village and hear the stories about American soldiers blowing kisses at North Korean guards standing just a few feet away. At the same time, as I peered past the world's tallest flagpole and saw the outlines of one of the country's biggest cities, as I looked at the rows of barbed wire marking the line between freedom and oppression and saw tiny figures toiling in fields on the other side, it hit me. Suddenly I felt unclean. Here I was, standing on the most heavily-fortified border in the world with my fancy smartphone in my pocket and a box of chocopies in my backpack, and within less than 3 miles were people who, at any moment, lived in fear of being sent to a prison camp for the rest of their life. It felt like the worst kind of safari.

In my AP US History class, we had a debate about why FDR didn't bomb the train tracks leading to Hitler's death camps. We talked about how the world could allow human beings to be systematically worked to death in prison camps run by an evil, oppressive regime. History does not look kindly upon the bystanders of that era.

I'm not saying there's any easy solution-- or one that won't cost lives. All I'm saying is: Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. How will history look back on the bystanders of our time?

Update: For more information, check out a recent CNN piece about Rodman's trip to North Korea.
You can also read the Human Rights Watch report.


  1. Beautiful post, Meg! Very sobering.

  2. Thank you for this post, Megan. It was a great, sobering read and offered real insight into a country that most of us ignore or—even worse—make a mockery of, as if there were no injustices being committed by the regime. I plan on reading "Escape from Camp 14" ASAP. - Jorie

  3. What a wonderful post Megan! Thank you so much for your insight into this very sobering reality. I had been wondering if you would make a trip to the DMZ at some point during your trip and it has been very interesting to live through that experience through your eyes.