The oppressive regime of Kim Jong-un has kept North Koreans in terrible conditions, but the west won’t interfere because the refugee crisis would be overwhelming
Park Yeon-mi, anglicised as Yeonmi Park, was just thirteen when she and her mother fled from North Korea, the world’s most tyrannical and secretive country, back in 2007. She has since become a high-profile activist, and has sought to expose the nature of her home country’s government in a new book, In Order to Live.
North Korea was a fairly textbook authoritarian regime up until 1991, when the Soviet Union, which provided exports to the country for many years, finally collapsed. That is when it made the transition to a famine state, when unknown numbers of people died from agonizing shortages of food, medicine and hope.
The Parks only escaped by persuading a trafficker to smuggle them into neighbouring China. The journey took them over the Yalu river and past the guards at the Chinese border. But Park’s terrifying experiences did not end there. Separated from her father, the trafficker forced Park and her mother to stay in his home for two years, during which time he repeatedly raped both of them. ‘That was my introduction to sex’, Park said.
North Korea is currently marking seventy years since the iron rule of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) began. Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the country’s current leader, was the progenitor of the KWP after the Second World War. Putting reunification with South Korea at the top of the agenda, he took the country to war with its southern neighbours in the early 1950s, during which time all colleagues with any South Korean links were purged from the party. As it ended in an armistice in 1953, the Korean War has never technically been concluded.
After several years of waning influence and faltering power, the KWP has been revived and strengthened under the rule of Kim Jong-un, who inherited the leadership following the death of his father in 2011. According to the country’s state-controlled media, Kim Jong-un is a child prodigy who could drive at the age of three and scaled the country’s highest mountain, Mount Paektu, wearing nothing but a suit and dress shoes. He was also infamously garlanded as the ‘sexiest man alive’. Yet Kim Jong-un rather neatly symbolises the paranoid and comically sinister nature of the regime he commands. Recently he reportedly sacked his own sister, who happened to be his security manager, after he was nearly hit by a guitar when a singer got too close for comfort. Before that he ordered the public execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, for failing to be sufficiently loyal.
At a rare public speech delivered during a heavily militarised celebration in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un proclaimed his country could defend itself in any war with the US. In reality, however, a more realistic target would be Seoul rather than Washington DC. If North Korea really did reignite the ‘paused’ war with its affluent and prospering southern neighbour, it would probably lead to the destruction of the country’s decrepit family-government (not to mention the obliteration of Pyongyang, where the lights go out at 10pm). Despite all the bravado, Kim Jong-un probably knows this. Also, the ensuing refugee crisis would make the one currently troubling Europe look tepid by comparison. Millions of illiterate and impoverished people, most of whom have never eaten anything more than dead flies and grass, would suddenly have to be dealt with. Neither China nor the United States wants this responsibility. Thus they are not too keen on hastily defusing the North Korean situation.
‘If there is hope, it lies in the proles’. So George Orwell wrote in his imperishable dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The comparisons between today’s North Korea and Orwell’s fictional totalitarian state are almost too obvious to point out. As long as the proles between North Korea and China continue to maintain the underground railroad across the border, then Kim Jong-Il’s dictatorship might just collapse from the inside.
Over 4,000 people have defected since Yeonmi Park and her mother escaped in 2007, although this number has fallen a little in more recent times. Still, other defectors have stated what many outside the Hermit Kingdom have now come to realise, that Kim Jong-un’s petty and irrational regime is not nearly as stable as it likes to suggest—regardless of whether it achieves its ambition of developing nuclear weapons. War however is not a very viable option. Determination and courage, the kind evinced by Park and many others, is all the people of North Korea can work with for now.