Cheryl Lynn Obal
U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay called the human rights situation in North Korea "the worst in the whole world". Bill Clinton called the reclusive country "the scariest place on Earth."
Before I get into the human rights, a brief history lesson to answer the question: Why are there 2 Koreas?
The Korean peninsula used to be one country. Ethnically North and South Korea are the same, and they share the same language. Korea had been under Japanese occupation from late 1800’s to the end of World War II. When Japan surrendered at the end of the war, the USA and USSR split the responsibility of disarming the Japanese on the Korean peninsula. They agreed that the USSR would disarm the Japanese from the 38th parallel and above, and the USA, the rest. That became what is still the dividing line between the two Koreas. Then, North Korea was influenced by the communist regime of the USSR, and followed in its footsteps.
The South was influenced by the USA. By 1950, just 5 years later, tension had grown so much that the North launched an attack on the South, starting the Korean war, which lasted until 1953 when they declared a cease-fire. However, no official document has been signed to end the war, which leaves the two Koreas technically still “at war.”
Here are some facts:
North Korea is a communist, totalitarian dictatorship that does not allow its citizens the freedom of movement. They are not allowed outside its borders without permission. If they go outside North Korea in search of work, or to escape starvation, they must escape in secret, and if they are caught they are considered traitors.
The economic situation there is in dire straits – political scientists have compared it to Sudan and Somalia, in terms of GDP and economic status. Famine - for example the one which happened in the late 1990’s, killed an estimated 1 million people and this has driven many North Koreans to run away in search of food and opportunities. If they are found, refugees can be repatriated back to North Korea.
Once back in North Korea, repatriated defectors are sentenced to a life of hard labor, a near-starvation diet,sleep deprivation, imminent torture, and conditions so harsh that many die within the first month. They are never given a trial but some are offered “redemption” through hard work and good behavior. In addition to people who try to escape, there are other citizens in the concentration camps for other crimes such as being a Christian or criticizing the Kim dictator regime.
The process of imprisonment started with Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, who declared that any dissidents must be silenced and punished and he started the system of “cleansing” through 3 generations. That means if someone is found speaking out against the Kim regime, or found disloyal in some way, or tried to escape, the entire family is imprisoned through 3 generations: children, grandchildren, brothers, sisters, wives and husbands. That means there are hundreds of thousands of people imprisoned for the crimes of their relatives. They are taken in the middle of the night from their homes from an extremely hostile, armed and aggressive government agents called the Bowiwon. Yes, this system STILL EXISTS, TODAY, IN 2014.
If North Korean defectors manage to reach South Korea, they are given immediate citizenship and asylum there. Justice for North Korea, the group I volunteered with while in South Korea, raises awareness about the human rights violations of North Koreans and helps bring many refugees safely to asylum in South Korea. There are also many government-funded centers in Korea, for example the Hanawon center, where all North Korean refugees in South Korea go through a 3-month assimilation program to help them adjust to South Korean society. However, North Korean refugees have a hard time adjusting to life in South Korea, and frequently suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, acute depression, a variety of physical ailments, delayed development due to malnutrition, and often - discrimination.
Most South Korean citizens remain complacent and unconcerned about the human rights crisis in North Korea. Upon speaking to friends, I found out this was because they have lived under constant threats from North Korea, and they are fed up with their behavior. Some South Koreans believe these threats are used as a leveraging tool. North Korean dictators will frequently threaten South Korea with attack, then rescind the threat, then say: "We were going to attack, but we didn't. So now give us rice."
Another South Korean friend explained it to me like this: "Well, you know a lot of times we don't want to help North Korean refugees because we are afraid that they are spies. Sometimes, a North Korean turns up in South Korea, and it is clear that he is a spy. Every once in a while, you come across a newspaper article where someone had written some negative information about our government...and you can just tell by the way it is written, that it comes from a North Korean spy posing as a South Korean...."
There are some people in the older generation who got separated from their loved ones when Korea was divided, and they have never, never been able to see them again. North Korea offers occasional brief opportunities for families to reunite, but it's rare.They suffer a life ridden with longing for that relative left behind, and with guilt for having arrived in South Korea and enjoying freedom while their relatives languish in this dark corner of the earth.