Tag Archives: Kim Jong-il

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.


Obama’s indifference means nuclear danger

North Korea’s successful missile launch, purportedly to orbit a weather satellite, highlights President Barack Obama’s sustained indifference to this repressive regime. While Pyongyang’s rocket tests have had decidedly mixed results, its nuclear weapons program has proceeded apace during four years of U.S. inattention, increasing the risks in northeast Asia and globally. Mr. Obama’s quiescence on North Korea is unfortunately symptomatic of his inability or unwillingness to acknowledge, let alone confront, threats to America’s interests, and those of its friends and allies.

In 2009, the Obama administration’s approach to Pyongyang appeared unexpectedly realistic. The White House initially seemed to abandon the Clinton-Bush obsession with making deals involving tangible economic and political concessions to North Korea in exchange for yet more promises to terminate its nuclear weapons program. Mr. Obama rightly believed that avidly pursuing such negotiations, offering one “compromise” after another, simply reinforced the North’s craving for attention without producing results.

So transparent was its mendacity, par for its history of diplomacy with America since the Korean War, that even former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s chief negotiator came to admit it. Christopher Hill said in January of 2011 that there was “absolutely no value” in resuming the failed six-party talks because of sustained North Korean duplicity. Better late than never.

But Mr. Obama’s reluctance to engage the North, simply abandoning the misguided Clinton-Bush diplomacy, is nothing to write home about. Not making unforced concessions that have the political or economic effect of propping up the regime, which repeatedly promises to give up its nuclear program but never does, avoids one erroneous path but follows another. In fact, administration passivity simply permitted the North to proceed essentially unimpeded.

United Nations Security Council sanctions after Pyongyang’s second nuclear test in 2009 only marginally tightened those imposed in 2006 after the first detonation and repeated missile tests; unfortunately, none of the sanctions have been stringently enforced. Before long, the Obama administration reverted to its predecessors’ approach, failing as they did. (On Wednesday, the Security Council condemned the latest missile launch, saying it will urgently consider “an appropriate response.”)

Just because North Korea’s nuclear weapons program hasn’t been on the front pages or at the centre of political debate doesn’t mean the uranium-enrichment centrifuges haven’t been spinning. In fact, the North brazenly revealed an extensive new centrifuge facility in 2010, asserting that its enrichment program had begun only two years before. Nor can we conclude that the North’s extensive network of underground facilities hasn’t been manufacturing new nuclear weapons, improving warhead designs by reducing their size and weight, or expanding its nuclear infrastructure. Lack of news about the North isn’t good news; it’s simply bad news we haven’t yet heard.

North Korea thus provides a paradigm of the dangers of a hands-off approach to international threats. Unfortunately, for four years, national security matters have generally sunk into obscurity, except where incidents such as the murder of the U.S. ambassador to Libya has slapped America back into awareness. Mr. Obama’s lack of interest because of his near-total concentration on domestic priorities has been a major factor: When a president abjures his bully pulpit, no one else can comparably focus the national attention. But Republicans are also complicit; reticence in critiquing the administration’s policy errors and offering workable options has significantly contributed to the national blindness to foreign threats.

Shortly after Kim Jong-un assumed leadership of the world’s only hereditary communist dictatorship, the North’s failed April missile launch provided an opportune moment to weaken the regime and hasten its ultimate collapse. Indeed, Kim Jong-il’s death and the ensuing succession process was an opening to destabilize the North Korean police state, and work toward reunifying the Korean Peninsula, America’s declared objective since 1945.

Rather than undertaking the admittedly arduous task of persuading China’s leadership to follow the logic of its own opposition to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and help reunify Korea, Washington has simply accepted the continued existence of this bizarre, nuclear-capable dictatorship. Only Beijing can strong-arm Pyongyang to renounce nuclear weapons or move it toward reunification. China has done neither. In fact, its trade has substantially increased recently, even as South Korea, Japan and others have reduced theirs.

China supplies 90 per cent or more of North Korea’s energy supplies, and substantial amounts of food and other humanitarian aid. China also facilitates the North’s evasion of international sanctions, and flies political cover for it in the Security Council. Reversing all or most of these policies would have a profound impact on the Pyongyang regime.

The reality is that, as long as North Korea exists, its nuclear program will be a central element of its identity and strategy for regime survival. If Mr. Obama’s first term is any guide, he will, after some obligatory rhetoric, return to ignoring North Korea’s threat. Unfortunately, the North’s nuclear menace will proceed apace, whether or not we pay it any attention. But the price of indifference today will only mean greater danger to come.

John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

North Korea to Launch Missile for Iran?

On Saturday, North Korea announced it will launch a satellite this month, sometime between December 10th and 22nd. Almost nobody thinks Pyongyang’s technicians have had the time to correct the faults that led to the catastrophic failure of the same rocket this April. Then, the Unha-3 blew up around 90 seconds into the flight.

So why launch now? That’s a mystery, but the one reason that should concern us involves Iran. In short, Tehran needs a launch vehicle for the warhead it has been developing, and the North Koreans need a successful test for their best missile customer.

For more than a decade, Pyongyang and Tehran have run what is essentially a joint missile development program. Iranian observers, for instance, were present in the North for all four of its long-range missile tests, those in 1998, 2006, 2009, and this April. Moreover, American intelligence sources indicate Iran tested a North Korean missile for Pyongyang and the North almost certainly provides missile flight-test data to Iran.

In view of these links, it’s no surprise that Iran’s Shahab-3 is based on a North Korean Nodong missile and more advanced Iranian missiles, the Shahab-5 and Shahab-6, appear to be variants of North Korea’ long-range Taepodong models.

Iran has been financing the North Korean program either by purchasing the North’s missiles or by sharing development costs and receiving missiles in return. Tehran’s support explains how a destitute North Korea has the funds to carry on a sophisticated weapons program. In early September the two countries signed a technical cooperation agreement.

More ominously, Japan’s Kyodo News on Sunday reported that Iran started stationing personnel in North Korea in October at a military facility close to the Chinese border. The Iranians, from the Ministry of Defense and associated firms, are there to develop stronger cooperation on missile and nuclear programs, according to an unnamed Western diplomatic source.

Analysts have puzzled over the timing of Pyongyang’s launch, especially because it comes in close proximity to the December 19th South Korean presidential election. Most observers believe the attempt to orbit a satellite—essentially a ballistic missile test prohibited by two sets of Security Council resolutions—will boost the prospects of the candidate that Pyongyang detests, Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party. Park is more skeptical of North Korea than her dovish rival, and a launch would tend to validate her position just before the balloting.

Some Korea watchers speculate that Kim Jong Un wants to mark the first year of his rule with a “celebratory firework.” That is possible too, but, whatever the reason for the launch, the Iranians will get the benefit of the exercise. Yes, the test will take place on Korean soil, but we need to keep thinking about Iran.