Sunday, April 28, 2013

North Korea: Revealed

Image: The Telegraph
The tyrannical state of North Korea is often described as a "blind spot" or a dark region of unknowns, within the context of the global theater. Even places where Americans aren't allowed or encouraged to go—Burma, Cuba, etc.—are still open to research and visuals. North Korea takes great pains to block out all outgoing information and preclude all incoming information.

This is impossible, of course. The popular saying "information wants to be free" has no greater poster child for its campaign than the North Korean population. Within the last few years, defection rate has kicked up to 1,000-3,000 people annually, from only a few hundred per year in the '90s. What has made people so confident to break free and seek refuge elsewhere is the amount of information that has seeped through North Korea's borders. The totalitarian regime itself has inadvertently cultivated an apt audience: through mismanagement, pride, and gibbering insanity, the ruling family in Pyongyang has cut off international trade and refused emergency fuel supplies. Factories cannot run when electricity only turns on twice a year (to observe Kim Il-sung's and Kim Jong-il's birthdays), so they collapse and are stripped for parts. It is mandatory for workers to show up for the workday, even when there's nothing to do, and their food rations have been scaled back to unsustainable amounts. This has stoked resentment and desperation in the working class.


Among the higher-ups, the educated and professional sector, loyalty is never rewarded. Brainwashed and dedicated party aspirants find themselves under scrutiny and persecution, either due to power-mongering superiors and managers trying to secure their own position, or as a result of the random and unpredictable winds which govern the paranoid administration. Wounded and disillusioned, the talent and intellect of the nation are forced to flee in order to survive, chased off by the very overlords they wholeheartedly served.

We know all this through interviews with the defectors. If they can make it to China, odds are they may find assistance to get to South Korea. If they flee to Mongolia, they are helpfully deported to South Korea. South Korea considers all North Koreans citizens, so it's a matter of paperwork with no risk of deportation. The most recent risks to this escape are a rising sex-trade industry in China, more than willing to exploit naive and helpless refugees, and North Koreans who pose as defectors to hunt down those who got away.

Recently I read the highly informative Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick. Written while "Dear Leader" was still alive, it transforms a dozen interviews with defectors into an epic story of prosperity, paranoia, poverty, and ultimately desperation. Adults receive their awakening in various forms: a well-made American nail clipper gives a guard pause to consider what their weapons must be like; a starving and bedraggled child singing nationalistic songs at a train station shocks a viewer with the deep incongruity; an elite student with a curious mind disables the government locks on his television set and peers into a world whose development was not set back 50 years by a powerful clutch of lunatics.

The book was published by Granta, so as a physical object it is not worth admiration: the cover peels to expose sticky glue that may seize your bookmark when you're not using it, and the print on the cover is more than ready to defect itself. Whoever edited this book should have picked up on the repetitive passages, paragraphs that are nearly identical to each other. Aside from that, the information is invaluable and the exposition is quite accessible, making it a quick and rewarding read.

Supplementing this information, yesterday NPR broadcast an interview with Sokeel Park who works with an NGO to collect and deprogram North Korean refugees. He covers many of the same topics and provides follow-up information for people like me, following the saga.

The fact of North Korea is endlessly fascinating to me (not that I'd ever desire or dare to visit it; I cross-trained at Camp David and that was close enough for me). I remember when Google respected its secrecy in Google Maps, and I was relieved when that was lifted. Immediately, military investigators identified several labor camps throughout the country. I myself can go through and pick out all the cities mentioned in Nothing to Envy, making the story that much more realistic and tangible for me.

With all this information, however, I have no prediction as to what will happen next: Kim Jong-eun's nuclear strike; South Korea's invasion into North Korea; the final surrender of North Korea, opening a quandary for China, South Korea, and Russia, with all the allies those entail. But it is certain North Korea cannot go on like this much longer. Hundreds of thousands more people will starve to death, as is happening every day. The official party line in North Korea is that this is not happening, and internally they are taking no steps to remedy this suffering. I imagine some of them will continue denying this right up to their last hysterical breath.

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