Author: Kelley Dodge, Sophomore
Enclosed in heavily militarized borders, lies one of the most secretive nations in the world, North Korea. Since the borders are forcefully guarded from outsiders, many evil truths remain undiscovered. However, it is clear that the North Korean government is oppressing its citizens and subjecting them to countless atrocities including arbitrary detention, prison camps, torture, sex trafficking, and discrimination, as well as violating citizens’ fundamental human rights to food, freedom, expression, and life. Because most international attention surrounding North Korea typically focuses on political issues, such as nuclear weapons, it is critical to raise awareness of the humanitarian crisis, shifting public attention to the government’s treatment of its people, rather than simply politics alone. In order to help the citizens of North Korea, it is important to raise awareness of human rights violations occurring under the current regime and to advocate for action to remedy the situation. Additionally, it is important to promote rights for North Korean refugees.
A primary example of oppression in North Korea is the arbitrary detention of citizens by the government. People can be detained for almost anything the government deems unacceptable. According to the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, “The presumed political, ideological, and sociological deviants deported to and imprisoned in the labor camps include persons suspected of wrong-doing, wrong-thinking, wrong-knowledge, wrong-association, or wrong-class-background” (Hawk 25). Often, these people are reported by fellow citizens for any suspicious behavior and then “the perceived or suspected wrong-doers and wrong-thinkers and up to three generations of their extended families are apprehended by police authorities and forcibly deported to the kwan-li-so [prison camps], without any judicial process or legal recourse whatsoever” (Hawk 27).
After these arbitrary, typically innocent, detainees are sent to prison camps, they are subjected to conditions similar to those of concentration camps. Current estimations have determined that “up to 200,000 people are believed to live under brutal conditions in prison camps” (Amanpour 1), and this number is constantly growing. While imprisoned, detainees are overworked and underfed. Prisoners are essentially treated as slaves and subject to “lifetime isolation and punishment comprised of hard labor in mining, timber-cutting, farming and related enterprises” (Hawk 27), they are fed little to nothing. According to a report by Amnesty International, “an estimated 40 percent of inmates died from malnutrition between 1999 and 2001” (“Images” 2). Some prisoners, especially women, go to desperate measures to acquire food. Often, women subject themselves to sexual exploitation, performing sexual favors to prison guards in exchange for additional food or less grueling jobs (Hawk 34). Even for the detainees that are lucky enough to survive the camps’ conditions, there is essentially no way out. Making a point to scare prisoners from fleeing, all “escape attempts are punished by public execution, sometimes by hanging but more often by firing squad” (Hawk 33). Executions are performed publicly in order to intimidate prisoners, demonstrating the consequences of defying guards and attempting an escape from prison.
These acts of violence are not only common in prison camps, but also within ordinary North Korean communities. Government officials often torture citizens at random to promote obedience, to elicit confessions (many of which are false), and to collect money or bribes. The officials use many cruel tactics including “sleep deprivation, beatings with iron rods or sticks, kicking and slapping, and enforced sitting or standing for hours” (“North Korea” 1). While these are the more traditional forms of torture, a more brutal form of torture is called “‘pigeon torture,’ in which they [citizens] are forced to cross their arms behind their back, are handcuffed, hung in the air tied to a pole, and beaten with a club” (“North Korea” 1). All torturous acts and executions are public, and all men, women, and children in the community are required to watch. Executions are often prescribed for particularly petty crimes, according to data that Human Rights Watch collected in 2012: “Authorities executed persons for “crimes” that included stealing metal wire from a factory, taking plate glass from a hanging photo of Kim Jong-Il, and guiding people to the North Korea-China border with intent to flee the country” (“North Korea” 1). The regime uses execution as an extreme measure to ensure that citizens are fearful and abide by the law. This also encourages citizens not to question the government’s power, since they see the consequences that will unfold if they should do so.
In North Korea, women are often victims of this torture as they are seen as servants to society. This belief is one that is constantly reinforced by the government. For example, former supreme leader of the country, Kim Jong Il once stated, “All women have to be good for is laundry and raising kids” (Jin 2). Women are constantly depicted as inferior to men; one North Korean newspaper article even stated, “From men’s perspective, women are not human beings” (Jin 2). This dehumanization makes North Korean women more susceptible to mistreatment than North Korean men.
Because of these horrifying acts of violence and inferiority of women in North Korea, as well as a myriad of other problems, many try to flee the country. However, few are successful because of harsh government measures. For example, Kim Jong-Un, current supreme leader of North Korea, put in place a decree requiring a “shoot-on-sight” order for the patrol guards for anyone they spot illegally crossing the border into China” (“North Korea” 2). Even for those who do make it across, however, the outlook is grim. While “women make up 80 percent of North Korean refugees in China” more than “90 percent of [these] North Korean refugee women become victims of trafficking” (Kim 455). In addition to refugees who are captured in China and sold into sexual slavery, many women who are residents of North Korea and have no intent of leaving the country are also trafficked. One study determined that “70-80% of North Korean women are trafficked in China” (“Liberty” 7).
In addition to these horrific human rights violations, the North Korean regime violates its citizens’ fundamental right to food. According to The World Food Program, “6 million of North Korea's 25 million people are in need of food aid” (Lackey 2). Among these needy are countless children. A 2011 United Nations analysis “showed that around a third of children were malnourished” (“Famine” 2). Because of this malnourishment, children’s growth is often stunted, causing complications later in life. For example, an “analysis of escapees from North Korea shows that those born after the Korean War in the late 1950s were on average about 2 inches shorter than South Koreans” (Lackey 2). Not only does the corrupt, well-fed government hoard any extra food for itself, but famines also regularly strike the nation, such as the 1990 famine that killed over a million North Koreans (“Famine” 3).
Not only does the North Korean government violate the right to food, but the oppressive regime has also revoked freedom of expression. The government, controlling all media, allows North Korean citizens to see solely government-censored information. For example, “All legal televisions are tuned to state-controlled domestic programming” (Lackey 2). Newspapers, phones, and the Internet are also monitored. Often, the government fabricates or skews stories, making itself sound heroic or causing other nations to appear evil, in an attempt to persuade the population to maintain a certain attitude. Because of this, North Korean citizens have little to no knowledge about current events or life outside of their country, adding to their helplessness against their oppressive government.
Since a corrupt regime controls essentially everything within North Korea’s borders, citizens have no power. While the government has revoked the right to freedom and, ultimately, the fundamental right to life, North Korean citizens can do little to change the government’s oppressive ways. The only hope for North Koreans to escape their oppressive government is through assistance from the rest of the world. Aside from military intervention, which could be successful in overthrowing the North Korean regime and installing democratic governance, there are minimal opportunities for the rest of the world to help. The world community can be most instrumental by raising awareness of the human rights violations on an international scale. Additionally, wealthier nations could provide humanitarian aid like sending food and medical supplies into North Korea.
One way for the Elon community in particular to aid the North Korean people is by launching a campus-wide campaign to promote awareness of the current state of the country. Instead of focusing on popular issues surrounding North Korea, like the nuclear missile crisis, this campaign would focus on the government’s treatment of its citizens. Eventually, this program would encourage students to write letters to organizations such as the United Nations and Amnesty International supporting intervention and aid in North Korea.
The program would also be a leading advocate for aid of North Koreans who have fled their home country. Currently, “If caught trying to escape, or if caught in China and sent back, they are at risk of extremely harsh punishments including brutal beatings, forced labor, forced abortions, torture, and internment in a political prison camp” (“Liberty” 6). China’s policy of capturing North Koreans and deporting them should be discouraged, while superior policies, like that of South Korea, should be promoted. When North Korean refugees make it across the border to South Korea, they are “automatically given South Korean (ROK) citizenship” (“Liberty” 6). In order to help these refugees who are simply trying to escape the horrifying conditions in North Korea, an organization promoting refugee rights needs to be created. After establishing itself and gaining support, the program would launch a humanitarian effort encouraging countries to offer asylum to North Korean refugees. Additionally, the program would be instrumental in providing opportunities for education of refugees, helping them assimilate into modern culture.
With such a powerful government, the people of North Korea have little hope of standing up for themselves without the aid of other nations. The military obsessed regime is figured to have “spent about one third of its national income on the military, according to a 2011 report from the South Korean government” (Lackey 3). With such dominance and evil, it is our duty to stand up for the weak and defend the basic human rights of North Korean citizens. In January 2013, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, described North Korea as having “one of the worst – but least understood and reported – human rights situations in the world” (“Q&A” 2). In a situation as grave as that of North Korea, it is our obligation to stand up for the defenseless, no matter the cost.
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