North Korea: Where Everyone’s A Prisoner

Header: Jacky Chen/Reuters

These days it doesn’t sound so pretentious to say that we are living in the best time to be alive in all of recorded human history because it’s essentially true, for many of us. In the 21st-century we have freedom of speech, we are most likely left alone to our own habits and devices, we are free to pursue whatever we’d like without being discriminated against because of our basic human rights as long as we don’t hurt someone else.

We generally live in a time which is not as brutal as it once was. Even for those who don’t live in the Western world (including Western Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, etc…) are surviving in conditions which are astronomically better than they were, say, a century ago.

There is a place which exists on Earth which is unlike the rest in so many ways that it is a perfect anomaly. In a recent Human Rights report, the United Nations noted that North Korea is “a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea is is truly living in the past; a place where the people have to live as if they weren’t in the present, as if they were prisoners or slaves.

North Korea is a freak, much like a flower blooming in a desert or an escarpment carved into the prairies. It attracts and will continue to attract attention from the West, and from the rest of the world because it is simply so unique. There is a rigid class system which depends on how loyal the citizens and their families are to the regime. If they’re to be trusted by the political party or by the military then they will be rewarded with a better apartment to live in and be given more luxuries to enjoy. Only the most faithful will be able to live in Pyongyang, the sparkling capital city surrounded by darkness.

Can you imagine a place where ideas like democracy and capitalism have never settled before. The whole force of modern culture over the last two thousand years—which has emanated from the West—going all the way back to ancient Greece, Rome, France, Britain, and the US, none of it has ever felt or discussed by North Koreans.

It is the only place where you won’t find any kind of commercial advertising and no forms of globalization. The people aren’t even allowed to imagine simple things like freedoms or choices. It’s like another world compared to everywhere else. An ancient, alien world—basically an Orwellian society. A place where your every move is monitored, your every word is censored and your own thoughts are manipulated for and by the State.

If you wanted or were able to travel there—which you definitely can but it’s not that simple or cheap—you would quickly find yourself literally going back in time. Into a mysterious kingdom which is stuck in the pages of history technologically. In North Korea, you’d only be a visitor for that very short period time. You would actually be the alien to them.

As a suspicious Imperialist pig; you would be put under constant surveillance because your very presence in their fragile quasi-feudal, fascist kingdom could mean the ultimate demise of their entire civilization which is dependent on falsehood. You’re a threat because you have a voice. You would not be left alone for a single waking minute while you’d be there. You can’t just be a tourist there; you must be escorted by an official of the State everywhere that you go. Nowhere else is like this for a tourist even with the strongest passports except maybe Iran. 

Many of the absurd and horrific conditions were made even more clearly obvious to the international community with a report that was published last month by the International Bar Association (IBA) War Crimes Committee.

Written by three respected international judges and based on interviews with more than a dozen North Korean defectors, the report might well be the most disturbing thing I’ve read this year.
One of the report’s authors, Thomas Buergenthal, survived Auschwitz. He told the Washington Post that ‘the conditions in the Korean prison camps are as terrible, or even worse, than those I saw and experienced in my youth in these Nazi camps.’ According to estimates cited by Buergenthal and his co-authors, there are currently between 80,000 and 130,000 people residing in these modern North Korean gulags.

What goes on underneath the veil of darkness is yet to be completely revealed and yet, there are so many sickening details in confessions detailed the full report by the IBA that it can sometimes feel as if it was all just another historical tragedy and we’re just looking back at. It’s had to recognize that this isn’t anywhere close to being over yet.

Here are just some of the gruesome witnesses accounts:

  • at one prison camp, 1,500–2,000 prisoners, mostly children, are believed to have
    died each year from malnutrition, while many other prisoners were beaten to
    death for failing to meet production quotas;
  • starving prisoners are regularly executed when caught scavenging for food;
  • at one prison camp, starving prisoners who were found digging up edible plants
    on a mountainside were shot to death;
  • at another camp, a witness saw a fellow inmate executed for stealing potatoes,
    while in a separate camp a witness described the execution of numerous
    prisoners caught scavenging for leftover food in prison guards’quarters;
  • a prisoner was beaten to death for hiding stolen corn in his mouth;
  • public executions by firing squads or other means are common, especially for prisoners caught attempting to escape;

I need to stress at this point—after noting these absolutely terrifying descriptions—that the most important thing to think about when looking into the confusing reality of North Korea is that everyone is a prisoner. They’re all stuck in the roles or classes and none of them are allowed to leave.

From the poorest peasant born in a concentration camp, to the elite member of the State’s ruling party, to the leader himself—there are consequences for dropping out of the charade. The entire country is littered with labor camps or gulags, which can be observed by satellite imagery. There is no question that these camps exist and they are the backbone of the rigid psychological hell that everyone is in.

(Sidenote: The United States has the highest amount of prisoners in the entire world, throwing more citizens in jail more often than any other nation–so for the DPRK to have, what, 14 measly “gulags” viewable from space… Who are we to talk? The US has 102 federal prisons and an additional 1,719 state prisons.).

The fear of being thrown into incarceration keeps even the Western, “developed” citizens quiet and compliant, so why shouldn’t they?

There was another estranged dictator that existed in the bowels of history who had prison camps and I wonder if he had not tried to expand—would we of left him to keep doing what he was doing? If Adolf Hitler didn’t attempt to invade neighboring countries like France, Poland or the Soviet Union, if he was just sending out messages provoking an eventual war, would the world have reacted as if it is now with Kim Jong-un?

I know that making this comparison is pretty grim to do and it simplifies many aspects of what is happening that I probably shouldn’t be glancing over so lightly so I will put it together by describing it in more vague terms. But do keep in mind that I’m not trying to undermine what happened during the Holocaust: I’m solely trying to make a point on how shocking and shameful it is in North Korea.

In the modern-day Kim regime, there are labor camps where anyone who objects to the ruling party is put indefinitely. Inside the camp, they work by mining coal or some form of agriculture but they are also starved and tortured. They aren’t killed deliberately or quickly; they are given quotas to fill each day and if they die, then oh well. If a person tries to escape from the camp, then something very scary happens.

Their whole family (will be round up and brought to the camp if they weren’t already there and) will be given the quota that the defector has run away from. So essentially, if they try to leave then their entire family has to pay the price. And if you get caught while you’re trying to escape then you and your family is all dead.

In Nazi-occupied lands during WWII, there were concentration camps which were very different than the North Korean gulags. These places were where people were brought to literally be extinguished. They were brought in by freight trains and pumped into huge showers and then they were gassed. Millions of Jews were exterminated deliberately and the entire situation the world went through by realizing what was happening after the fact was absolutely horrifying to think about.

Many genocides have occurred since the Holocaust but the world still generally turns its attention away from mass killings and towards something a bit shinier: something like an auspicious leader who tempts a nuclear holocaust with a Twitter battle with Donald Trump. The reactions towards these two very different leaders—coming from two very different worlds—having a proverbial online dick measuring contest during a terribly bleak, precarious time for 25 million North Koreas being pressed to survive in 20th-century war-like conditions is absolutely appalling.

Together with the southern half of the Korean peninsula, the West—led by the United States—could able to save all of the prisoners of North Korea from the slow, despotic genocide that they’re stuck in. The Korean War technically never ended in 1953 and I’m confident that if we know what we’re doing beforehand, we can end a 60-year-long ceasefire, bring peace to a land that hasn’t seen it since its Japanese occupation began in 1910 and we’ll save both worlds in the process.

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