Tag Archives: Kim Il-sung

North Korea, where the people eat each other

Life inside North Korea’s closed borders is hard to imagine. One of the only insights into how ordinary people live, beyond the official line of the regime, comes from those who have escaped. Two defectors, Chanyang Joo and Yu-sung Kim, who left North Korea in 2011, tell their story.

“I heard that people sold and ate human flesh,” says Chanyang Joo. “I heard they were killing other family’s babies and selling the flesh after burying the head and fingers.”

Ms Joo says she ignored the rumours until the parents-in-law of a man she knew were publicly executed. They were butchers and the crime, people said, was selling human meat.

Rumours like this have surfaced in the testimony of several defectors coming from North Korea. Whether they are true or not – and we may never know – the fact that they circulate and are believed illustrates the level of hunger, deprivation and fear in parts of the country that marked the Great Famine.

Fellow defector Yu-sung Kim heard these rumours too and believes there may be some truth in them. “When I was in university that had happened,” he says. “It’s due to hallucination caused by severe hunger, people don’t even realise the act as murder and eat the flesh. But that is very, very rare.”

The rumours started during the Great Famine, from 1994 to 1998, when grain shortages in China meant food aid was drastically reduced. Sober estimates say that 600,000 to one million people died during the famine – about three to five per cent of the population of the country.

“It was the most destructive famine of the 20th century,” says Marcus Nolan, author of Famine in North Korea. “The idea that people are sufficiently desperate and unhinged is not surprising.”

Chanyang Joo was just a toddler when her family moved from a city to the rural village where she grew up. It was during the famine, when markets closed and transportation failed. Many in the cities died of starvation, she says, but in the countryside her family survived on vegetables and shrubs.

After the famine they were still very deprived. “We couldn’t get any medicine,” she says. “Very rarely some medicine was brought from China. Doctors sometimes performed surgery without anaesthesia. I saw some emergency patients dying.”

Babies in North Korea

But some North Koreans like Yu-sung Kim and his family were entirely unaffected by the famine. His parents earned money by trading illegally with China and South Korea and arranging for separated families to reunite across the Korean border. He grew up in a government-owned high rise apartment, watching movies and playing video games that were smuggled across the border from the South.

As children, both Kim and Joo learned to worship the regime and its founder Kim il Sung. “The first sentence we learn as a child is ‘Great father Kim Il Sung, thank you.’ and ‘Dear leader Kim Jong Il, thank you,'” says Joo.

“We have to thank the leaders for everything. Every school, every classroom, even the train cars have the pictures of leader Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on display.”

From preschool to university this is the most important subject for a young North Korean. “You can fail everything as long as you know about the history of the Kim family,” says Joo.

But she had happy memories too. “Until North Korea’s brainwashing education takes effect, children are children,” she says. “When I was little and unaffected by politics, I had the most fun playing with my friends.”

Though his childhood was privileged and the illegal trading of his parents was overlooked by the regime, Yu-sung Kim and his family knew they had to toe the line when it came to certain rules.

They couldn’t watch any news from outside Korea and any criticism of the regime was forbidden. He could discuss politics with his family but not with anyone else. “There is always a government spy in a group of people more than three,” he says. “You could end up in a political prison camp.”

Joo’s family had first-hand experience of these camps. Her grandfather spent nine years in one. He had criticised the regime while with a group of friends but there was a spy in the group and he was arrested. “It was a simple slip of the tongue,” she says.

He told his grand-daughter of horrifying conditions at the prison camp, of people eating rats and digging grain from animal faeces to survive. He said prisoners were attacked by dogs as punishment and dead bodies were left to rot where they fell.

Detention camp from 1953

Her grandfather’s experience had a profound effect on the entire family, though not in the way the regime intended. At the camp he interacted with prisoners from the elite classes and learnt of the inequality in North Korea and of life outside the country.

“My grandfather had always told us we had to leave for freedom,” says Joo. “He said ‘Dream big’ and that if we wanted to live in the real world, we had to leave.”

“Since I was little, I strongly felt the need to leave. I’ve never touched a computer but I was really curious about them. I loved studying and was good at it so I wanted to learn as much as I wanted in a free country.”

For seven years, her family plotted to leave North Korea. They listened to radio broadcasts from the South. When this came to the attention of the authorities in 2008 it was time to go. Her father left first through China and Laos to the South Korean embassy in Bangkok. He saved to pay brokers to help the rest of the family escape.

Ms Joo was the last to defect and when authorities found out that her father was missing, she was put under investigation. She told them he had died in a fishing accident. “That is common in North Korea,” she says.

She practised swimming and trained physically for her escape. Three years later she crossed the border to China where she was arrested. China doesn’t recognise North Korean refugees and its official policy is to send them back. But defecting is a very serious crime and repatriation means imprisonment, torture or even death. A religious group, which she cannot name, helped release her from jail.

For Yu-sung Kim and his family, the decision to leave North Korea came suddenly. His father’s business came to light in a South Korean newspaper in 2011, fearing the government reaction they fled. They left behind his younger sister who was ill. He later found out that she was told her family had been captured and killed while attempting to escape. She later died in North Korea.

North Korean defectors in Seoul North Korean defectors protest about China’s policy of repatriating defectors

Though he appreciates his freedom Mr Kim says life in Seoul is difficult. He faces prejudice from South Korean society which often considers North Koreans, with their archaic dialect and strange accent, as ignorant and backward.

“In my university when I tell people where I’m from they see me as strange, like an alien from the Moon,” he says.

There are more than 24,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea. When they arrive many lack the basic skills to live and work in a modern society – operating a cash machine, driving a car, using a phone or a computer.

They find it hard to get work and some resort to petty crime which has given the community a bad name. “I sometimes think living in South Korea is fortune and misfortune at the same time,” Mr Kim says.

Chanyang Joo refuses to let prejudice bother her. But she says freedom has its own problems.

“There are too many things to do here and I have to plan my own life and it’s stressful,” she says.

“But when I think about the difficulty of living in a free society, I realise I’m working and getting tired for myself and for my future so I feel happy.”

Chanyang Joo and Yu-sun Kim spoke to World Have Your Say on the BBC World Service. Listen to the programme here.

Never again is now in North Korea

Shin Dong-hyuk grew up in North Korea’s Camp 14, one of the monstrous slave-labor prison complexes in which the world’s most tyrannical regime has crushed hundreds of thousands of its citizens, working them to death in conditions of excruciating brutality and degradation. Though the North Korean concentration camps have lasted far longer than their Soviet or Nazi counterparts did, Shin is the first person born and raised in one of them to have successfully escaped abroad. His story is told in journalist Blaine Harden’s “Escape from Camp 14,” a heart-crushing reminder that man’s inhumanity to man has no limit.

It is a book filled with harrowing passages. At the age of six, Shin was forced to watch as one of his classmates — a short, slight, pretty girl — was beaten to death by their teacher when he discovered five kernels of corn in her pocket. When Shin accidentally dropped a sewing machine while working at the camp’s garment factory, half of his middle finger was chopped off as punishment. Time and again he sees other inmates maimed or killed when they are forced to work under appalling conditions. And time and again he joins in collective punishment, unhesitatingly obeying when ordered to slap and beat a classmate or some other prisoner singled out for abuse and discipline.

When Shin was 14, he witnessed the execution of his mother and brother for attempting to escape. His chief emotion as he watched them die was not sorrow, but anger: He was furious at what they had caused him to be put through. Because of their infraction, he had been savagely tortured, suspended in mid-air over a charcoal fire as interrogators demanded information about where his mother and brother were planning to flee after their escape.

“Shin, crazed with pain, smelling his burning flesh, twisted away from the heat,” Harden writes. “One of the guards grabbed a gaff hook from the wall and pierced the boy in the lower abdomen, holding him over the fire until he lost consciousness.”

North Korea’s slave-labor gulag would be horrific even if its inmates were guilty of actual crimes. But most prisoners are guilty of nothing except being related to the wrong family.

Under a demented doctrine laid down by Kim Il Sung, the communist tyrant who founded North Korea, “enemies of class … must be eliminated through three generations.” The regime therefore fills these unspeakable camps not only with “enemies” who dared to practice Christianity or failed to keep a picture of Kim dusted, but with their entire families, often including grandparents and grandchildren. Shin’s father ended up in Camp 14 because two of his brothers had fled south during the Korean War. He and Shin’s mother were assigned to each other by camp guards years later as prizes in a “reward” marriage. They were allowed to sleep together just five nights a year. Shin was thus conceived — and spent the first 23 years of his life — behind the electrified barbed wire of such a ghastly hellhole.

Harden’s book is gripping, and enlightening. Yet not even the most gifted writer can fully convey what it means to grow up in a Camp 14 — a realm in which “love and mercy and family were words without meaning,” in which betrayal was routine and compassion unknown. How does a human being overcome such damage? Grisly physical scars mark Shin’s body, Harden writes, but there are severe psychological scars too. He struggles to show affection and to trust other people; to be capable of sympathy and sadness.

How could it be otherwise? After a lifetime of dehumanization and institutionalized cruelty, Shin can hardly be blamed if he wrestles with emotional paralysis.

But what excuse do we have? We who know what freedom and civilization mean, who live with law and justice and decency, who intone “never again” to accounts of genocide and holocaust — how do we justify our emotional paralysis?

There is no cruelty so depraved that people cannot be induced to do it, or to look the other way while it is being done. “Escape from Camp 14” reconfirms what we have known for years: North Korea’s rulers brutalize their people with unparalleled and bloody barbarity. Why do we find it so easy to look the other way?

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.