As I’ve been talking to people about my internship quite a bit lately, I’ve had the privilege of helping people get a sense for what’s going on in North Korea. It’s been great talking to friends who have expressed a sincere interest in learning more about the human rights crisis, and well, if I’m supposed to be raising awareness around the country I should be able to do so while I’m getting ready for the road.
Over the next few posts, I’ll try to shed some light on the situation in North Korea. Hopefully this can be the first focus of a series of posts that shine the spotlight on some different issues around the world.
Last year, after Kim Jong Il died, videos surfaced of North Korean broadcasts that spread the news. The people of North Korea seemed absolutely devastated by the loss of their dear leader, as if losing a family member. A mass of North Koreans were completely bawling in the wake of the loss. It was bizarre and absurd. You don’t even see that sort of dramatic mourning for a well-liked leader in most places. The theatrical weeping could’ve been easily dismissed as odd and peculiar, but it reveals something deep- the North Korean state of worshipping their leaders, who take on a god-like state in the country.
This is a recent image, but it brings back memories of 1994, when Kim Jong Il’s father, Kim Il Sung, passed away. If the people revered Kim Jong Il, they absolutely worshiped Kim Il Sung as the closest thing North Korea has to a deity to worship. There are over 30,000 statues of the leader all around the country. The government would ensure that he received this religious adoration from his people, and that went as far as to teach children’s songs glorifying Kim Il Sung in schools. Upon his death, calamity struck the country. Many people experienced heart attacks or strokes, and many committed suicide.
In both instances, this extreme devotion is incredibly eerie. It can’t easily be said if people genuinely see their leader as so powerful and benevolent as to merit worship, but they are certainly immersed in enough government-propagated information to form this mindset. It’s also possible that some North Koreans are putting on enough of a charade to escape governmental suspicion for their own protection.
In either scenario, it isn’t good.
Such is the tyrannical state of governmental supremacy under which North Koreans live. It’s hard to imagine how things within the country would come to this state, but it helps to have some historical context.
North Korea was established as a nation in the midst of the Korean War in 1948. Until his death in 1994, Kim Il Sung was the supreme leader of the country, and he ruled with a harsh authoritarianism. His political rivals and enemies were quickly eliminated. He took control over nearly every aspect of the country. To this day he is considered the “eternal leader” of North Korea.
Kim Il Sung established North Korea as a communist nation, and under the guise of communism he quickly brought about a caste system that would organize the distribution of resources around standing with the government. Kim’s caste system consisted of three parties, the first being the government elite. The second were all those deemed suspicious and untrustworthy by the government. Finally, there was the hostile class. Under the Kim regime, it became very easy to lose your standing with the government, with virtually no opportunity to advance.
If anything, this caste system brought about an atmosphere and a mindset called inminban, which is essentially a state of paranoia and suspicion that exists between ordinary people of North Korea. The government treats its hostiles and its opponents so brutally that often the threat of falling out with government is enough of an incentive to get ordinary citizens to actively look and report any suspicious activity of their friends and their neighbors. Because the government can punish those who are even suspected of cooperating with subversive acts, an atmosphere of betrayal is fostered. It’s a system of fear and disunity that the government preys upon to maintain a disharmony among people that it continues to oppress.
Those who the government see as hostile become “untouchables” of sorts. They and their descendants are denied the opportunity to go to university, to find jobs, or to even be given government-sponsored housing. Under the guise of communist principles, these people have no other means upon which to live.
There is no escape for those who find themselves on the end of oppression. The nation’s borders are closed, and escaping to another country is an act of rebellion nearly guaranteed to result in execution. Closing the country off to external media and communication also keeps most of the oppressed people in the dark as to the full extent of their situation.
It is nearly impossible for people to gain favour with the government once it has been lost. North Korea practices a belief in requiring three generations of a family to be punished for one’s sin- and many who find themselves in this position today are there as a result of the actions of a distant relative during the Korean War. All signs indicate that even after three generations of “penance” there won’t be any advancing. Rather, it is very easy for those in higher standing to simply find themselves at odds with the government. Something as small as selling bread or basic materials could be seen as a front to the government because they are in rebellion of communist principles. “Back-talk” against the government could result in hostile standing, or even worse, placement in a concentration camp.
Such camps are the likely destination of most hostiles, and they truly are dehumanizing camps. The inminbam culture which exists in North Korea is only magnified within the electric fences of these labour camps. Prisoners are forced to pay off their “sins” and the transgressions of their family through what is virtually slave labour. Beatings are common. Executions are also a common end to many hostiles.
Under a government that has created such a system, injustice spread within,
I write for free because it gives me a lot of joy to do so! If, however, you’ve been enjoying for a little while, I am currently raising funds for an internship with LiNK. If you would like to help me raise awareness about the North Korean Human Rights crisis around our country, I would greatly appreciate any donation. Thanks!