With the recent reports of catastrophic flooding in Thailand, heightened fears over Israeli-Persian diplomatic tensions and the long-awaited trials of former Khmer Rouge lieutenants, it would be fair to say that November has proved to be somewhat of an eventful month in Asia this year. Is it any wonder, therefore, that the plight of 21 North Korean defectors went largely unnoticed by international press agencies? It was the largest en masse defection since February, thereby adding to the ever increasing amount of refugees in a global diaspora thought to be anywhere between 100,000 to 400,000 former citizens. But what actually compels people to abandon their birthplace, and in doing so, undertake a treacherous journey that has claimed hundreds upon hundreds of lives? With stringent restrictions upon foreign journalists, and even icier tensions with their respective governments, daily life in North Korea is shrouded in mystery.
Defectors tell of a country ravaged by famine and poverty, a broken nation in which destitute citizens are presided over by a despotic family lineage. It is described by many in the West as a rogue state, formerly denounced as a sponsor of terrorism by the USA and widely believed to be the most totalitarian regime in the world. North Korea sounds far more akin to something from the imagination of Tom Clancy than an actual country. It is, in fact, something of a modern day demesne, whose leadership controls a vast array of nuclear and chemical weapons, alongside a fully operational space programme.
…the deaths of anywhere between one to three million North Korean citizens…
The republic’s enigmatic leader, Kim Jong-il, has more than an element of regality surrounding his largely unopposed cult of personality. To many in the outside world, North Korea’s Beloved Father is the subject of a deification so ingrained into the nation’s psyche that he is genuinely believed to control atmospheric conditions and shoot a 38 under par in golf. Climatic manipulation and a better handicap than Tiger Woods may seem comical at first, but the harsh realities of living in such a distorted world have been made abundantly clear by the myriad of NGOs that report widespread malnutrition among the general population.
From the early 1990s onwards, a combination of economic mismanagement and natural disasters proved pivotal in causing the deaths of anywhere between one to three million North Korean citizens. Now, even in light of increasingly better harvests, a damning U.N. report released this month has unequivocally stated that international aid is still urgently needed.
…conveys the skewed priorities of the country’s belligerent leadership…
Yet, instead of embarking on a structural overhaul, Kim Jong-il has adopted a policy of Songun (Military-first). As a result, North Korea is the most militarised state on earth, additonally boasting the world’s 4th largest armed forces. It is estimated that the Korean People’s Army has a budget of $8 billion or roughly 25% of the national GDP, and thus conveys the skewed priorities of the country’s belligerent leadership. Such an aggrondising stance to international affairs was no better highlighted than by Pyonyang’s most recent threat towards its Southern neighbour. In a statement last week, North Korean generals declared that South Korea’s leadership would be “engulfed in a sea of fire”, if deemed to have provoked a response during upcoming maritime drills. It is clear, therefore, as to why so many people flee from the Northern half of the Korean Peninsula.
Diseases such as Tuberculosis and Malaria are endemic in a country in which most hospitals operate without electricity or heat. Freedom of speech, movement, expression and religion are also highly regulated by the state, punishing dissidents with concentration camp internment and public executions. Now, in the wake of recent diplomatic tensions and the possibility of war, average North Koreans are evacuating the republic in unprecedented droves. Often captured and sent back for reprisal, their collective future is always uncertain. One can be sure, however, that as the flow of disillusioned citizens increases, the world will have to take more and more notice. And with that, change will have to come.