In 2011, I interviewed my friend Dr. Sandra Fahy on her first book, Marching through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea, (Link) which was based on the testimony she’d gathered from North Korean famine victims who’d defected to Korea or Japan. Her second book is now with the editors at Columbia University Press and will be out soon.
This interview took place just after the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, when Sandra was at home in Japan and I was in the Philippines. The next interview, which will appear on December 1, deals with the history of the DPRK and the evolution of the police state.
With the creation of North Korea, systems were put in place which later proved disastrous, such as songbun, or political inheritance. (Link) This songbun places everyone on the genetic-political hierarchy, determined by a person’s ancestors and family status and the person’s actions real or imagined by the state. Your songbun determines all kinds of things, like your exact location in the country, your occupation, your vulnerability to human rights violations.
So your grandfather went to Japan and returned with his family, and because of this you’re brought up in a prison cam or in some remote northern region with little access to food or anything else. If one family member commits a crime, then three generations of the family is punished.
Yes. Another key concept is Kim Il Sung’s ideology of juche—national independence, self-sustainability—which has been criticized for contributing to the totalitarianism of the state and the oppression and isolation of the people. (Link)
Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s, several factors came together to create a perfect storm—drought, flood, difficulties with agricultural farming, the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the fact that the government wasn’t going to open up to allow a free market. Famine descended on the already quite stratified society, and people were left to make a lot of bad choices which would determine how they were going to live or die.
Had the government chosen a more legitimately democratic, liberal, rights-based approach to solving problems, people could have carried on and managed fine, but the government would have had to open up. That would have meant an end to the socialist, communist, juche, songbun system, There was no way people in a democratic, liberal rights-based society would have supported it.
Right. Completely incompatible.
I’d like to ask a very naïve question—but one I think is often asked or inferred in cases where oppression is discussed—namely, if the situation is so bad, why don’t people rebel?
Well, you can’t assume one case is the same as another. For instance, the civil rights movement in the US was about resisting a type of oppression that was quite different from apartheid in South Africa or the oppression of colonization. If you acknowledge that not all suffering, not all oppression is the same, then not all the same methods of resistance will work or produce the same results.
Another reason is that many North Koreans might be happy with the status quo, or at least contented with what they have. I mean the elite. There’s an interesting book by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith called The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics, If discusses the need to keep the upper echelon of the elite relatively satisfied. If you don’t, you’ll meet resistance from a strong core of very powerful people. The elite in Pyongyang knows they’re taken care of. They may also know they might not do as well if Kim Jong Un were toppled and the country changed into one that resembles or links up with South Korea. Other people could be just getting by in their day-to-day life, tolerating their situation and not feeling the need for some extreme, dangerous reaction to it.
Right now I’m focused on showing the all-pervasive, all-encompassing human rights violations which have a direct effect on everyone’s everyday life, even the elite. If you do try to challenge any of them you could be killed. First, access to food and other basic resources like medicines. Second, the judicial system—that is courts and the corruption that exists related to the arbitrariness and extreme laws in North Korea. Third, freedom of information and freedom of expression. And fourth, migration inside the country and out of the country. Those four aspects coalesce to create a situation where people don’t have much opportunity to organize a significant number of people who could safely resist the system.
For the first one, lack of access to food, you cite the testimony of an orphan who said, “I was one of the oldest kids so I could at least pick up food that had fallen to the ground. Those who were very young, they had no idea how to beg or steal food from other houses, that’s why they ended up dead.”
By the time the famine was so severe that the children in the orphanage had nothing to eat, the government had made choices that led directly to that situation. North Koreans still have very little access to food because the government doesn’t provide it as it once did, and they can’t legally provide it for themselves. If they go to black markets, access to food is quite difficult, it’s expensive, and the markets are still under surveillance. If people try to get resources in China to sell on the black market, then they’re also compromising their safety. There’s a double-edged effect to the choices that they’re making, like whether to die or leave the country.
Academics refer to “access to food” because it’s not that there’s not enough food but that people can’t buy it or migrate to locations where they can get food or where the government is providing it. Even in the famine of the 1990s the issue was one of access, not of shortage, as scholars and investigators point out again and again. That’s the case in Yemen right now, where people have no access because of the conflict and the government control of international trade.
You mean the war in Yemen supported by the United States, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Lack of access means people will try migrating, illegal selling on the black market, stealing, selling their own things or other people’s things and complaining.
Yes, you’ve written a lot about how just saying you’re hungry is seen as committing a crime against the state. Or saying someone starved to death. You have to talk about pain, not hunger.
All of those actions put North Koreans at increased risk of punishment so severe it’s a human rights violation. Migration results in families breaking up and losing contact with each other.
So if a family goes in search for food, what happens?
Well, it depends. People are still expected to fulfill their duties in society and on the job. Somebody might have to be absent from work or steal things from work, or the family would split up. Only very rarely would an entire family go together. One member of the family might cross over to China, which is taking an enormous risk. There’s severe punishment, often quite arbitrary, for crossing over the border.
If you as a North Korean believe you can live lawfully within the structure provided, you are a fool. Ironically, during the famine those who were the most loyal, particularly at the start of the famine, were the people who were most likely to die. Call it willful ignorance or naiveté or fate, trust. Also, because the state had formerly provided to people it deemed acceptable, people who might have been living on the fringes found their fringe area grew narrower and narrower as it became more necessary to break the law in order to survive.
That brings us to the second in your human rights violations, those in the legal system. You give as an example the case of a girl whose family left for China, where they were caught and dragged back to North Korea. Then her parents were executed before her eyes and she was thrown into a prison camp. In the camp she and a friend were pulling up edible plants when a guard caught them and forced them to eat the plant, the roots and the soil the roots were in. They got severe diarrhea, and the friend died.
Breaking the law was seen as going against the state, so the punishment had to be severe to ensure that other people wouldn’t do likewise, The punishments were very dehumanizing, very sexist, very anti-family because the ‘offender’s” entire family was pulled in too. There’s little opportunity to advocate for yourself. You couldn’t say, “Look, you’re not giving us anything to eat, you’re not allowing us to farm, you’re not letting is sell on the black market” The basic means of survival were criminal
In a normal, rights-focused justice system, people go to prison as punishment, their access to the world is now limited because they committed a crime. In North Korea people’s access to the world is limited because they broke very extreme laws, but they are also going to prison for punishment—torture, not enough access to food, exposure to illness and disease. The family is also included in order to be punished.
Of course there are all kinds of forces in the justice system, police, surveillance, security police. People will be put into a local police detection center for a week or a month for wearing clothing that looks too much like South Korea. So the punishment is totally disproportionate to the behavior.
A person could just be sitting at home, and the secret police could barge in and search around. There’s no surety, there’s no regulation. There’s some similarity with the situation of blacks in the US—although with a big difference in degree, of course—in that racism is always available at any time and you can be arbitrarily selected for punishment without proper avenues of redress. In North Korea the abuse is always a high-risk potential, but there are no avenues for redress. You might be able to bribe your way out, but then you could be punished for offering a bribe.
People brought in for illegal behavior would include those trading between China and North Korea who got caught and were tortured into confessing to spying for South Korea. Even when your intention was not to run afoul of the state, it would be interpreted that way, and then you would be punished. Of course if your intention is to run afoul of the state there will be few people to tag along with you because the government is so powerful. I think that’s why successful rebellion hasn’t happened. People know it wouldn’t work.
So then your third category is freedom of information and freedom of expression, and you give us an example of a journalist who was writing about Kim Il Sung and typed his name only as “Kim Il.” When the censors caught the mistake, he apologized profusely, but he still got six months in a prison camp.
His writing hadn’t even been published. The typo was discovered as the piece went up and down the line of monitoring. In a normal, rights-protecting country, people can advocate for themselves to their government. There’s a civil society which can make complaints and can tell the government they want it to do things differently—with referendums, for instance. In North Korea there’s no civil society and no freedom of expression. People do carve out elements for themselves by using pointed humor or a clandestine speech register to communicate. But there is no way for ordinary citizens to ask for a different kind of .legal settlement or to complain about the justice system and go unpunished.
The lack of information means political disenfranchisement. North Korea has been identified as one of the most closed media environments in the world. So not only is there limited access, but the type of media that is available is deeply erratic, highly negative, very polarizing. It’s in many ways sexist or racist. It’s very discriminatory to South Koreans.
You mentioned the use of heavily loaded words and heavy use of negative adjectives about this or that.
Hostile modifiers. So when they write they might use a particular word or phrase, “ the puppet South Korea,” “the bastard Americans.” Negative modifiers are always attached to their enemies of the state.
People don’t have enough real information about what life is like outside of North Korea, although they have more than they used to. Young people are risking their lives to watch South Korean dramas, which may sound ridiculous, but not if you’re growing up in this black market generation, So they watch with a computer and an illegal USB under the bed covers. Or they watch with certain people, making them conspirators so they won’t narc on them.
People have never seen North Korean civilian-created media or media created by those like themselves. So that’s one reason why they don’t necessarily see themselves as politically involved. That information is not being provided to them. It could be quite difficult for them to imagine such a scenario. And you can’t communicate openly because you don’t know who you can trust not to inform on you, so you don’t see that politics is something you can insert yourself into.
Scholars have observed that North Koreans are very politically disengaged. Culturally, politics is seen as utterly uninteresting, which makes sense from their perspective. I suppose because it’s not personal. You can’t have any kind of voice in it. The only time ordinary people figure at all politically is when they sacrifice themselves in a melodramatic situation, like dying to protect a portrait of the Dear Leader or increasing production in a factory. Then there’s a report in the newspapers. It’s not a situation with “political” agency. If getting involved means someone might think you were trying to change things, that could be life and death for you and the rest of your family for three generations.
Also, when I was doing the research for the first book, I discovered that North Koreans didn’t make a connection between the food situation and politics. Internationally, most people don’t make a connection between their country’s political system and its economic situation. There are some exceptions, like during the Great Depression. North Koreans didn’t connect the famine and the government’s political choices, like prioritizing the military. If you prioritize the use of resources, then you have to sell that message. So the message has to be supported by the education system and the information system, which also censors anything else. North Korea has a market economy in terms of its black markets, but it doesn’t have a free market economy. Its people are not permitted to go to other parts of the country or to China and trade freely. The government also doesn’t trade freely either. That would mean opening up the country and allowing its people would see a different way of life and no longer support the current system.
This is why I think most North Koreans are choosing to defect. It’s their rebellion. They might not see it as rebellion, but they’re choosing a different kind of politics and a different kind of government—by leaving. In fact, they are.
People can’t move freely within the country either. The distribution system, which reportedly still operates to some extent, keeps people in place because they can only get food at certain locations. If you don’t have the right ID card because you’re not where you’re supposed to be, you won’t get anything, The centrally controlled, command economy is a direct result of North Korean politics.
Which leads us to your fourth category, leaving the homeland. You provide a description of the flight of a North Korean soldier running across the Demilitarized Zone chased by the North Korean soldiers who were shooting at him. He was hit five times but kept crawling south. South Korean soldiers found him bleeding under a pile of leaves. Can you talk a bit about how people get out of China and what happens to them afterwards?
Let me present the escape routes in the order of most unlikely to most likely. The most spectacular example is crossing the DMZ, which almost never happens. Then there’s travel to Japan by boat, although the Japanese are notoriously bad at taking in refugees. And then the third is crossing into China, although it’s reportedly harder now with Kim Jung Un. The border is being guarded more. It’s become harder for people to get across the border and more dangerous to develop networks and find traffics to get them across. Once people get into China, they may end up staying there anywhere from twenty-four hours to a lifetime.
It won’t be a surprise to people that China doesn’t respect the rights of refugees, so North Koreans are compelled to risk their lives. This means they are very vulnerable to being taken advantage of. Children born in China are trafficked and women sold to Chinese men. Because they’re undocumented and stateless, they can’t get education, health care, employment. They’re trapped in a situation where they’re living outside of the law. For some that might be better than their life in North Korea, but it creates a situation of lifelong insecurity.
Of course, sometimes people are caught and sent back. Punishment could be having to bribe the people who capture them, abuse, torture, rape. If a woman is found to be pregnant it’s assumed the father is Chinese, and forced abortion is how an “ethnically impure” fetus is dealt with. North Koreans try to get out of China, which often means going through other countries where their rights are not valued. Mongolia is maybe the most sensitive and generous country, but even there people have been caught and sent back. Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, all of these countries have been difficult for North Koreans.
Very briefly, what happens to them when they end up in South Korea?
Well, there’s an education center where they can stay for a few months, and then they’re given a place to live and some money, and they get help finding employment somewhere. The center I visited was an incredible facility from what I could gather. The women’s and children’s facility provides infrastructure education—how to use the buses here, it’s a kind of cultural training. Of course they also get health care because, particularly by comparison with South Koreans, they have very bad standards of health, with multiple-drug-resistant tuberculosis and poor dental and psychological health. So they have really state-of-the-art facilities for these individuals.
But getting back to North Korea, the human rights violations are all-pervasive and all-encompassing. Even if you are in the elite, these issues still apply to you. You’re still going to run a risk in these four areas of your life. And if you do try to challenge any of these areas, then you could be killed.
So in answer to your question of why people don’t rebel, I think the human rights abuses by the state create a situation where rebellion is virtually impossible—or at least account for the lack of a successful rebellion. The leaders keep the lid on because they know that if they let it up a little bit it will be all over for them.
At the same time, North Koreans are carving out an existence with things like the black markets. People are migrating back and forth from China. People are able to bribe the judicial system,. They are able to have some moments of dignity or basic humanity. It’s not all entirely gloom and doom. People are able to enjoy life.
The catch is that not all people can game the system. Those who can, can’t do it consistently. Nobody lives without risk. For human beings to live with comfort and dignity and a little peace of mind, you need consistency. You need to know you’re not going to be arbitrarily arrested or searched. But no matter who you are, you and your family and maybe your friends can be so easily swept up in the cascade of rights violations that you can’t swim up against that current.
I think the overall system in North Korea will be gradually eroded. But I don’t think there’s any hope that the situation will be changed from within—except if elite individuals within the government slowly create change. With increased technology, with increased bribes, with increased black market, with breaking the extreme laws, there could be slow changes. But as for a revolution or a kind of North Korean spring or a velvet revolution, I don’t see that as possible, I would be happily proven wrong.
In many ways, it’s very interesting to see what’s happening globally in terms of populism. It’s as if the international world is kind of catching up with where North Korea has been all along—very neo-nationalist, hating the rich and the intellectual elite. Populism helps to legitimize places like North Korea. The utilitarian approaches to humanity are similar.
When Donald Trump met with Kim Jong Il in Singapore, a journalist said that during his State of the Union address Trump had cited work about Chi Fan Ho and other defectors who suffered terribly as a result of human rights violations. So why wasn’t he mentioning human rights violations now? Trump said, “It’s rough in a lot of places.” That’s exactly what North Korea would have wanted him to say.
In that single, dismissive sentence Trump used a diversionary tactic called what-about-ism, which is very dangerous for discussions about human rights. It’s the type of dodge, probably learned from the Soviet Union, that the North Korean media uses again and again to shoot down any kind of criticism. What-about-ism changes the subject so that the point of the discussion becomes completely lost.
When Trump says it’s rough in a lot of places, human rights activists may feel the need to justify their attack on North Korea’s lack of human rights. But a conversation about rights violations needs to happen. In “Last Week Tonight” the comedian John Oliver did a segment about what-about-ism. He said isn’t logical. In a court of law, which is possibly where such arguments might matter most, a judge wouldn’t allow it. A defense attorney couldn’t, “Your honor, I know my client killed three guys, but what about Jeffrey Dahmer?” It makes no sense, but it can be very seductive, and it’s often used in the conservative media.
This Is Why Most North Korean Defectors Are WOMEN (Link)
Secret State: Inside North Korea (CNN Special Report) Documentary (Link)
Kang Choi Hwn, The Acquariums of Pyongyang (Link)
Eonmi Park, In order to Live (Link)
Krys Lee, How I Became a North Korean (Link to author interview)