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North Korea: A Humanitarian Crisis Decades In The Making

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An overweight totalitarian with a bad haircut who rules over masses of the disenfranchised through careful and systematic deprivation as well as rewarding loyalty with elite status is again in the news. No, I'm not talking about Donald Trump. I'm talking about Kim Jong-un, supreme leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) or as its commonly known as: North Korea.

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Pyongyang City, the capital of North Korea. (Photo: Matei Hudovernik via Getty Images)

The half-brother of Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-nam, was assassinated in Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur Airport in what seems to have been an elaborate fake game show. Malaysia took a hard stance and ensured that the autopsy was conducted by them, revealing that the eldest son of the former leader Kim Jong-il was killed using the extremely toxic nerve agent VX. They have since also expelled the North Korean ambassador.

Naturally, the first thought is that the assassination must have been ordered by Kim Jong-un. Jong-nam was hardly a major public figure, nor was he particularly outspoken against North Korea. By and large he was a mostly private figure who offered little threat to his younger half-brother. So, why kill him? Because even the slightest and smallest threat must be eliminated, that is how the North Korean regime continues to hold power.

This assassination does achieve something though, it draws attention to North Korea and how brutal its regime is. If this is the regard with which the leader's own family is treated, how must its regular citizens be treated?

It is not so easy of a fix that the damage can be reversed overnight.

The answer is heartbreaking albeit unsurprising. In February 2014 the UN Human Rights Council presented the report on its investigation on human rights in North Korea. The findings are not for the fainthearted or weak stomached. Conclusions include that the North Korean regime has systematically violated human rights including freedom of thought, expression and religion; freedom from discrimination; freedom of movement and residence; and the right to food. The State was also found to have committed crimes against humanity including "extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation."

There is no system of law or legal recourse, individuals have no right to the basic freedoms which we take for granted, there are no protections for women, children, or minorities. The DPRK uses the control of food and the threat of violence, indefinite imprisonment (including three generations of families for "crimes" committed by one individual), and death (often in the form of public executions) as a means of control. Children are brainwashed from an early age to never question the regime. Defectors from North Korea tell of how they would try to suppress questions or thoughts about their conditions as they believed that the Supreme Leader would be able to tell what was in their minds.

History will not judge the DPRK regime kindly, but what of us who allowed it to stay in power for so long?

The UN report also describes the hell that is their political prisons. Sketches submitted by former political prisoner Kim Kwang-il to the inquiry show what life, or rather the semblance of life, was like in these prisons. Even with the layers of abstraction that a sketched picture provides they are still horrifying to view. Another former prisoner Kim Hye-Sook, who spent 28 years in Camp 18 and also has drawn a series of sketches, narrates how due to the severe malnutrition in the camps the young children would be horribly stunted or malformed with extremely thin limbs and small bodies with heads appearing almost too big for their body to support. In her own words "They didn't look like human beings."

Now it is not so easy of a fix that the damage can be reversed overnight. Any collapse of the DPRK or the overthrow of its regime is not likely to be bloodless. Seoul, the capital of the Republic of Korea or South Korea as it is commonly known, is located about 35 miles to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which despite the name is a highly militarized strip of land that is the border between the two Korean states. Seoul also contains approximately half of the entire population of South Korea. Any military action places these people in danger. As the reunification of Germany showed, there are a lot of socio-economic barriers that need to be overcome in order reintegrate a large population into life in a reunified state, and even then the reunification of East and West Germany was after a comparatively much shorter period with a much smaller gap in technological and socioeconomic conditions.

But these must not be obstacles to freeing the Korean people from one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Through inaction we are implicated. Through apathy we are condemned. History will not judge the DPRK regime kindly, but what of us who allowed it to stay in power for so long? When Nazi Germany fell in 1945 at the end of the Second World War the world was shocked by the magnitude of the inhumanity committed by that regime.

What Pandora's Box awaits us with the fall of North Korea?

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