It has been said that the only thing necessary for the persistence of evil is for good people to do nothing. Nowhere is this truer than in North Korea, a repressive police state that mercilessly tortures its citizens and routinely threatens its neighbors – and the United States – with war. Clearly, it is in our interest to see democratic reform in Pyongyang, both for our own safety and for the well-being of North Korean citizens themselves. But change won’t happen overnight – which is why we must plant the seeds of freedom and human rights now that can one day lead to a more democratic regime less prone to lashing out at the free world.
As a first step, it’s important to better understand the issue itself. A new book by Melanie Kirkpatrick helps readers do just that. “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad” is a gripping account of the trials faced by those fleeing the world’s most violent, secretive, and oppressive dictatorship. Ms. Kirkpatrick highlights the numerous atrocities and human rights abuses perpetrated by the North Korean government, along with the efforts of brave individuals abroad to assist those suffering during their escape. The threats to North Korean refugees often just begin with their escape to China; they are treated almost as badly there because Chinese leaders fear a flood of refugees if they allow them to stay.
So why do so many North Koreans risk everything?
In North Korea, food is rationed – only the few citizens favored by the regime receive an adequate supply and might enjoy a substantial breakfast in the morning (it is worth noting that while many of their compatriots starve, North Korean leaders spend billions on missiles and nuclear weapons). Cars are incredibly rare; only the political elite are allowed to drive and freedom of movement is heavily restricted. Even television programs are state-controlled. North Koreans are only allowed to watch government-produced propaganda like the state “news” service, and government-issued television sets are distributed and pre-programmed to only receive certain channels. Tampering with one could result in imprisonment in one of North Korea’s infamous labor camps – or worse.
It is no wonder, then, that a government that considers basic rights to be conditional – rather than universal, as Americans do – engages in routine abuse of its own citizens. Under North Korea’s “guilt by association” principle, entire families of up to three generations can be imprisoned in a labor camp as a result of one family member criticizing the government. From the few accounts available of these labor camps, torture, starvation, and death are a constant reality.
The nightmare that is daily life in North Korea is difficult for most Americans to fully comprehend. However, Ms. Kirkpatrick’s book does provide a glimmer of hope in describing a modern underground railroad – a developing network that is allowing a few refugees to escape, and, in some cases, to tell the world of the horrors within the so-called Hermit Kingdom. This is more consequential than you might think, because the more information we have in the outside world, the more likely international pressure to reform can be brought to bear on Pyongyang.
As Americans, we are privileged to live in a country that upholds the basic rights of its citizens. We should do all we can to support others who are not so fortunate.