Watching Egypt, Dreaming of Reform in North Korea

Watching Egypt, Dreaming of Reform in North Korea

Story tools

A A AResize


The international media has of late been intently focused on events in the Middle East, and particularly Egypt’s anti-government uprising. But as scenes of angry Egyptians crying for reform spill from television screens around the world, North Korea remains under an iron grip and behind an iron curtain, its people wholly unaware of the depths to which their own government has sunk.

It is my earnest hope that some day, as in Egypt today, my fellow North Koreans will come to the fore in tearing down a dictatorship. I grew envious as I watched crowds of Egyptians scream for Mubarak to step down, thinking that in my own country such actions cannot even be dreamed of… yet.

Nearly 20 years ago, I attempted to escape from North Korea, leaving my wife and children behind. Less than a year later I was forcefully repatriated by authorities in China and was accused of betraying my country. I was investigated for eight months (during which time I was tortured on numerous occasions) and was sent to Yoduk prison camp in Hamgyong Province, where I remained for four years before attempting another escape. I eventually made it to South Korea.

Two decades have passed since that time, but little if anything has changed in North Korea, where people’s attitudes regarding the regime seem unwavering. North Koreans, for whatever reason, remain taken in by the propaganda spewed by the (North) Korean Workers’ Party's, and if someone knows or becomes aware of the truth they will promptly be sent to Yoduk to disappear without a trace.

The North Korean dictatorship differs widely from Mubarak’s government, while the situations in the two countries are also distinct from one another. When I first saw protesters on the streets in Egypt, I slapped my knee, saying, "Egyptians are angry over poverty and unemployment… they’ve stood up against a corrupt government." But people in North Korea have no clue about the life (North Korean leader) Kim Jung-Il and his officials lead. There's no way they could know the truth, because there is only one central broadcasting station in North Korea. People have no other options.

Of course news does find its way into the country, whether through those who sneak into and out of China or through the growing popularity of banned South Korean dramas, also smuggled from China. Perhaps some North Koreans are aware of the truth their government tries so hard to conceal, but having said that, who among them could conceivably come out and demand Kim Jung-il’s resignation? As long as Yodok and other prison camps remain operative in that country few if any individuals will be able to muster the courage to confront their leaders.

What are the camps like? Imagine being forced to work like a horse day in and day out on as little as 200 grams of watery corn soup per day. Alone one could possibly face such horrors, but the thought of dragging family and relatives into that hell would and does prevent thousands from fighting against the Kim regime. The thought that one’s parents, or children could be sent to one of the North’s gulags would force even the bravest to turn their back on hell.

In 1972 Kim Jung-il’s father and state founder Kim Il-sung declared that relatives up to three generations of an individual found guilty of betraying the state would also be condemned. That same system remains in place today. When I was in Yodok a group of children once approached me, calling me the “prime mover,” a term that refers to the guilty party responsible for the locking up of his or her relatives. The former, it’s assumed, deserves to be there, but the relatives suffer nonetheless.

As we move deeper into the 21st century, leadership in North Korea remains a hereditary affair, while millions starve. Kim Il-sung remains “president for life,” more than a decade after his death. His son is the Dear Leader.

While the chances of North Koreans rising up against this tyrannical system are slim at best, bringing international pressure to bear on the North Korean leadership to get rid of its extensive gulag system would go a long way in shortening the staying power of the regime and could mark a step toward eventual democratization.

The UN and the international community must demand that North Korea disband its gulag system. Perhaps then will courageous North Koreans be able to stand together and raise a clamor against the Kim Jong Il regime.

In a faraway land, I watch as people fight for justice, and I imagine that someday my fellow North Koreans will do the same. Is it a false hope?