The Forgotten Plight of North Korea

Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea, in the morning of September 27, 2008
Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea, in the morning of September 27, 2008 (Kok Leng Yeo)

“The West still turns a blind eye to the world’s most brutal and systematic abuse of human rights,” notes The Economist. While we worry about North Korean missiles and warheads, the suffering of the almost 24 million people who live under its Stalinist dictatorship is often overlooked.

Because the country is so unbelievably sealed off from the rest of the world, reports about its insane tyranny are sparse. Refugees who escaped into China during the late 1990s spoke of hundreds of thousands of people dying from famine while in recent years, dissidents living in South Korea and satellite surveillance revealed the darkest side of Kim Jong-il’s reign of terror: the gulags.

Life in the North is tough, especially for the people stuck in the countryside. So much as 70 percent of the population of a given rural town is estimated to live off a diet of only corn porridge mixed with grass. In the mountainous region of the southeast, residents fear massive food shortages since the government’s campaign of socialist farming deprived people of their lands and their means of production. “We are being led to out deaths,” according to one North Korean interviewed by The Economist.

Reports describe policemen and soldiers fighting each other while trying to steal food. Black markets blossom as many households’ only means of survival. But of course, the government cracks down on these illegitimate practices, further depriving people of food and income. Petty theft and even wandering the countryside in search of food are offenses great enough to ensure a one-way ticket to a labor camp. Between 150,000 and 200,000 people are furthermore incarcerated for “political crimes” — many do not survive the camps.

Must the West intervene? The Economist says “yes” and that is understandable. Standing by and letting millions of people suffer seems very inhumane — even though that’s pretty much all we do about some places in Africa too. At the same time that very suffering is the best assurance of regime change. Should we provide North Korea with just enough food and medicine, Kim Jong-il and his fellow tyrants can hold out. Should we aid North Korea, the regime will be able to sustain its oppression and extortion of its own people for just a little while longer. Painful though it may be for the North Korean people, the rest of the world doing nothing is likely to benefit them the most in the long run.

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