12/20/2012 03:49 EST | Updated 02/19/2013 05:12 EST

North Korea: Will Nuclear Alarms Wake Up the World?


Governments around the world -- along with the United Nations and other international bodies -- were quick to respond to North Korea's recent rocket launch with warranted condemnation and concern about the country's nuclear weapons program. It is regrettable, however, that while rocket launches make headlines, the deplorable state of human rights under the Kim dynasty receives relatively little attention. Yet, not only do many North Koreans suffer from extreme mal-nourishment and a near-total lack of political and civil rights, over 150,000 of them languish in prison camps in conditions that are nearly too inhuman to comprehend.

One former inmate, Shin Dong-hyuk, recently visited Ottawa as part of his efforts to raise awareness about the situation in his home country and make its continuing human rights crisis more front-of-mind. Shin was born in a prison camp in 1982, and, until his early 20s, was barely aware of the existence of a world without forced labour, strict discipline, constant surveillance and suspicion, and even competition with his mother for scraps of food.

His childhood -- if one can call it that -- was marred by a near-total lack of warmth or affection, including from or toward members of his immediate family. Food was so scarce that inmates' gums turned black and their teeth fell out from malnutrition. Schooling in the camp was focused on instilling obedience and a willingness to report on other prisoners; if one student stepped out of line, the teacher would have the others beat them. Consequently, when Shin learned that his mother and brother were planning an escape, he told a guard, and the two of them were publicly executed. Because the guard wanted full credit for discovering the scheme, Shin and his father were tortured for not alerting the authorities.

When Shin escaped in 2005, he had no grand ideas about freedom or even dignity; he simply hoped that, on the other side of the electrified fence, he might be more likely to find a good meal. He managed the feat by crawling over the corpse of a fellow prisoner, which served as a buffer against the voltage. Then, through a combination of theft, bribery, persistence, and luck, he made his way to China and eventually to the South Korean consulate in Shanghai, thus becoming the only known inmate born in a North Korean prison camp to successfully escape to freedom.

In all probability, Shin's former classmates -- at least, those who have survived -- remain among the hundreds of thousands still suffering in the camps. Most are there because they -- or members of their families -- ran afoul of the regime, according to whose ideology disloyalty is genetic and can only be diluted over multiple generations. Despite the regime's insistence that the camps do not exist, we know of them not only due to the testimony of Shin and others like him, but because satellite images of the camps are available from a source as ordinary as Google Earth.

There is therefore no excuse for silence or inaction. Indeed, despite the obvious and significant challenges of influencing a closed and autocratic administration, Shin expressed optimism during his trip to Ottawa that the international community is capable of having a positive impact in a variety of ways.

First, humanitarian organizations have been operating in North Korea since 1998. They are small operations that do not have access to the camps, but they are an important means of getting necessities like food and medical supplies to ordinary people, and countries like Canada can work to support these organizations and encourage the North Korean government to expand their reach and role within the country.

Second, there are several diplomatic avenues that could be explored. Shin would like to present his story at the United Nations, in the hopes that -- when combined with the testimony of other camp survivors and satellite images of the camps -- the North Korean delegation will eventually be pressured into acknowledging their existence. As well, the Chinese government's support for the North Korea regime -- and its policy of deporting North Korean refugees -- should be raised with China in future discussions. To China, the regime of Kim Jong Un may well soon become more of a headache than it's worth.

Third, one of the more effective ways of undermining the North Korean government is by making its citizens aware of life outside the country. North Korea is one of the most closed societies on earth, with the media and the education system all tightly controlled so as to propagate the belief that North Koreans are the envy of the world.

Several organizations have begun using illicit radio broadcasts or even smuggled DVDs or USB keys to show North Koreans the truth about life on the outside. The hope is that, by making North Koreans more aware of the reality of their circumstances in contrast with other countries, they will themselves begin to pressure their own government for change.

In fact, some North Koreans have already started taking matters into their own hands. Over the last 15 years, they have established markets to trade basic necessities. The regime dislikes these vestiges of capitalism and has tried to stomp them out, but it has largely failed to do so. The markets not only provide a space for the North Korean people to gain independence from the regime, but also serve as a conduit of information.

If North Koreans are prepared to take the risk of defying their cruel and autocratic government, surely we in the international community must do everything we can to support their efforts. To begin with, we must ensure that human rights concerns are not edged out for top billing by the latest rocket launch.

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