Why Do We Ignore North Korea?
Kang Chol-Hwan's new book exposes the atrocities of North Korea and challenges us to take notice of the people who are fleeing the country.
by Jerome F. Winzig
The United States tends to pay little attention to events in other countries, especially in distant, smaller countries. Before September 11, for example, events in Afghanistan didn't make it into headlines or the evening news too often, even when 24 foreign aid workers were arrested earlier this year and accused of promoting Christianity in that country. (Even today, most press reports focus on the eight workers from Germany, Australia, and the United States who were just freed, and ignore or give short shrift to the 16 Afghan Muslims who were also arrested and whose fate is unknown.)
It's no surprise, then, that the plight of people in North Korea goes mostly unnoticed year after year. But a newly-published book by Kang Chol-Hwan, a refugee from North Korea, gives us reasons to take notice. Kang, a 31-year-old staff writer at the South Korean daily newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, vividly portrays how he spent ten years of his youth with his family in the Yoduk gulag in North Korea.
Kang's descriptions uncontrived and unforgettable. He recounts how he and other prisoners were luck to eat rat meat to survive. At the same time, he talks about finding beauty in the surrounding hills and mountains, even though the deep valley in which the Yoduk camp was located served to keep them imprisoned.
Kang's account, written with the help of Pierre Rigoulet and translated by Yair Reiner, begins with the story of how his grandparents emigrated from Japan to North Korea in the 1960s. His paternal grandparents were urged to emigrate by the Chosen Soren, a North Korean exile group in Japan and his maternal grandmother came back to North Korea after his grandfather died in a Japanese prison.
When they arrive in North Korea, their hopes for an ideal, egalitarian society are quickly dashed. One of Kang's uncles describes their arrival in these words: "It was like the city was dead--the strangest atmosphere. The people all looked to shabby and aimless in their wandering. There was a feeling of deep sadness in the air, and no movement betrayed the slightest hint of spontaneity." One man who had emigrated a few weeks earlier came up to his uncle as they disembarked and said, "What happened? We sent our friends and family letters warning people not to come! Why didn't your family listen?" But none of the letters were ever delivered.
At first the lives of Kang's family are not as harsh as those of other North Koreans. His grandfather's fortune results in an important position in the North Korean bureaucracy and as a young boy, Kang is spoiled enough to have numerous aquariums stocked with exotic fish. But there is constant police surveillance, unrelenting political indoctrination, and continual reminders that immigrants from Japan are untrustworthy.
One day in 1977 his grandfather doesn't come home from work. A few weeks later, their home is raided and ransacked by security agents, who ship ten-year-old Kang off to a concentration camp along with his grandmother, father, and sister. His mother is forced to stay behind and divorce his father.
Kang's account of the next ten years is a disturbing documentary of what it's like for a young child to witness atrocities and horrors every day. He describes sadistic "teachers" with names like Wild Boar and Old Fox. He recounts how children are casually punished in cruel ways beyond the comprehension of most Americans. He tells of adults being tortured for weeks. I remembers when guards plowed up a prisoner burial hill to plant corn; later, the prisoners came upon the body parts as they worked the fields.
After ten years, Kang and his family are released. Ironically, the government's efforts to "reeducate" them have instead utterly alienated them from the Communist state. Several years later, he and a friend managed to escape to China and eventually made their way to South Korea. Even in China, the freedom he encounters astonishes him.
Today, Kang doesn't think South Korea is perfect. But he has no delusions about a co-equal reunification between North and South Korea. Instead, he is convinced that North Korea must first stop crucifying its own population. At the same time, he believes the rest of the world should not stand idly by while North Korea crucifies its own population, and asks, "How can we stand by while troops of orphans cross the Yalu and the Tumen rivers seeking refuge in China; how can we stand by while parents sell their daughters for something to eat?"
It's a question that deserves our attention and an answer.