North Korea no gray area, needs our help
Published: Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, December 4, 2012 19:12
I pretty much never advocate war until it concerns oppression. Then I’d gladly give my life to help liberate others. Where it gets sticky is what qualifies as a “dictatorship” worthy of toppling. Hitler’s Germany qualifies. Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam doesn’t. Hussein’s Iraq is iffy. The point here is that there’s a lot of gray area between what qualifies as a dictator we should tear down and one that we should leave alone. But there’s nothing gray about North Korea.
Short history lesson: Korea was a part of the Japanese Empire until World War II. After the Russians took over parts of Japanese-occupied China and American forces occupied Japan, Korea was stuck in the middle. We (without consulting a single Korean) decided to split the country down the 38th Parallel. The north side of the country would be a Soviet-influenced Communist dictatorship, the south side would be an American-influenced “democracy” (in fact, just a dictatorship that promised to fight the Communists).
When Mao conquered the southern half of China from the Nationalists, it inspired Kim Sung Il (the current President’s grandfather) to invade the southern half of Korea. In response, the United Nations (led by the United States) went to South Korea’s aid and almost managed to entirely defeat the North Korean army. Three years later, a cease-fire was declared, but the war never ended. The two Koreas are still technically at war. During the course of the war, the North almost completely conquered the South. While they were in control of central and southern Korea, they captured and kidnapped thousands of civilians, relocating them to the north side of the country.
That’s where Shin Dong Hyuk’s story begins. He was born 30 years ago in a place called Camp 14. His parents were also born as prisoners in Camp 14, and had their marriage arranged as a reward for good behavior. In an interview with Shin (who escaped Camp 14 seven years ago) Anderson Cooper asks if he ever knew why he was in Camp 14. Shin responds, “No. Never. Because I was born there I just thought that those people who carry guns were born to carry guns. And prisoners like me were born as prisoners.”
In fact Shin was there as part of Kim Sun Il’s “three generations of punishment” program. It follows a philosophy that the children and grandchildren of Koreans who fought against Pyongyang would still be loyal to their ancestor’s cause, so they must all be punished. Shin grew up never even thinking he could escape: he had no reason to believe outside of the prison would be anything different from inside the prison. He had no idea there were other countries, other people, or even basic facts about the world (“I had no idea if [the world] was round or square.”)
Shin, who spent his entire life hungry in the camp, changed forever when a new prisoner, Park, was brought in and began to tell Shin about outside. He told Shin about Pyongyang and China, and especially about food: broiled chicken and barbecue pork. In the prison, Shin was only ever fed a mash of cornmeal, so the concept of broiled chicken became a shining star of freedom.
Eventually, Shin escaped Camp 14 and was amazed that, “People were laughing and talking as they wanted. They were wearing what they wanted. It was very shocking.” He bribed his way into China, made it to Shanghai and took asylum in the South Korean consulate. Since then, Shin has spent his life traveling and telling his story to human rights groups all over the world.
He’s recently come clean to tell the story about how his brother and mother were killed in the camp: he reported their attempts at escaping in the hope of receiving more food as a reward. Shin was forced to watch them die. He’s previously withheld those details of the story, telling them now as a form of redemption.
Shin’s story is just one of (surprisingly) many stories we have of escaped North Koreans. If there was ever a country that needed liberating for the sake of human compassion, it’s North Korea. This is a country where Camp 14 is such a hell-on-earth that the rest of the country is described as “heaven,” by a prisoner. When we think of Heaven here in the West, we typically don’t think of 23 million people on the brink of starvation. Please pay attention to North Korea: not about Kim Jong Un and his antics, not about how the situation will affect international relations, but about the people and their suffering.