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Severe Lack of Freedoms
Inside North Korea, citizens have virtually no freedom of expression, assembly, religion, or even the right to move from place to place, to choose where one lives, or leave the country without permission. The economic sphere is tightly controlled, while the education and health care systems for all but the elites are in shambles.
See The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and North Korea (PDF), prepared by the NK Freedom Coalition.
North Korea’s Class System
The government has long divided families into three classes: core, wavering, and hostile. From birth your “seongbun” determines how high you may rise in the society, where you must live, etc. In general, the less trusted you are the farther you must live from the capital and the harder your life will be. Reasons for being distrusted include that your grandparent was born in South Korea.
Political Prison Camp System
Going against the government in any way — large or minuscule — or innocently being caught up in others’ power struggles can turn your life upside-down and land you in a political prison camp. Some never learn what “crimes” they have committed. Estimates are that there are 150,000 or more prisoners in the system. Most camps cover huge tracts of land in hard-to-reach areas.
You may be sent to a political prison camp if you:
- do not properly handle photos of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il (see The Hidden Gulag, p. 28)
- read a foreign newspaper or listen to a foreign radio broadcast (the regime tightly controls all information in the society)
- sing a South Korean pop song (see testimony of Ji Hae-nam in The Hidden Gulag, p46)
- know something that might compromise a person in a high position (see the case of Kim Young-soon, who was a friend of Song Hye-rim, the mother of Kim Jong-Il’s oldest son)
- are accused of being a spy (see case of Jung Gyoung-il)
The North’s political prison camps involve forced labor in horrible conditions, little food or medical attention, and often no chance of release. The government’s guilt-by-association policy means your family may be sent to a prison camp, too, though it may be a different one than yours. There is nothing resembling due process or other legal protections in North Korea. There are even prisoners who have been born into the camps — i.e., born into slavery (see the case of Shin Dong-hyuk).
The government denies the existence of the camps, but today everyone can look for themselves: see North Korea’s Largest Concentration Camps on Google Earth.
Food, Famine, and Politics
In the 1990s famine struck North Korea. To hear the government tell the story, it was caused by bad flooding, but the reality is more complicated, and much more sad.
North Korea is the first industrialized society in the history of the world to suffer from famine. In 1995, with the famine already in full-swing, the government finally began asking members of the international community for aid. But at every turn it hindered all attempts to verify that the aid was actually reaching those most in need. The vast majority of refugees interviewed indicated they never saw any aid, which was delivered in bags marked with the name of the donor country. Instead, much of the aid is believed to have been diverted to the military and/or sold on the black market. In addition, as aid came pouring in, the government greatly reduced its imports of food.
Though no one knows for sure how many died due to the famine, conservative estimates are from 600,000 to 1,000,000 — about 3 – 5% of the population. One study based on interviews of 771 refugees estimates that 12% died in the hardest-hit province.
The UN’s World Food Programme states on its website (as of February 2011) that 33% of the population is undernourished. It’s not that North Korea doesn’t have the money to buy food on the international market, it’s that they choose to spend it on weapons under their military first policy.
Most of the facts in this section come from this report: Hunger and Human Rights (PDF).
As a result of the famine, life in North Korea permanently changed. Since the government doesn’t provide food to much of the population, they have learned to fend for themselves. Markets have sprung up — some legal, some not. Bribery is rampant and one can get out of many things with money.
For the latest news on North Korea, see The Daily NK.