How do you solve a problem like North Korea?

24 Dec 2014



We cannot ignore the inhumanity of North Korea any more.


The bad guys have won. Sony Pictures has, after weeks of chaos caused by 'anonymous' hackers, cancelled the release of the comedy film The Interview. In recent weeks we have had scandalous revelations about the company, how Jennifer Lawrence is paid less than her male co-stars or how Angelina Jolie was described as being talentless. Now in the wake of threats that imply the deaths of civilians; "Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time"; freedom of speech in the 'land of the free' has taken a nose-dive. We seem to know who is behind the hacking and who would issue such threats over so insignificant a film: North Korea.

The main premise of the film is an attempt to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, perhaps not in the best of taste, but it isn't the first time the small and belligerent nation has been the target of such humour. It is easy to find room for mockery when looking at its bizarre form of sexually transmitted despotism, but dig deeper and the reality is one of tragedy.

North and South Korea are still technically at war, the de-militarised zone between the two being the result of an armistice rather than a peace treaty. It is therefore important to remember just how easy it is to demonise your foe. As such, myths about North Korea abound and a strong example of this is how quickly the story of Kim Jong-Un having his uncle executed by 120 starving dogs, was so readily accepted as fact by the West. For every myth there is a truth, which is often all the more horrifying.

Various accounts from those who have escaped detail tragic events, one being the murder of children. It isn't for sacrifice; more often it is because a Korean woman has become pregnant by a Chinese man or by being raped. Ingrained in the North Korean psyche (and to a lesser extent the South too) is the idea of racial purity. They believe that Koreans are inherently pure and loving, whereas all other peoples are cruel, debauched and untrustworthy. This can range from a father disowning his daughter for marrying a Westerner, to forced abortions and infanticide.

Many North Koreans slip across the border to China to trade on the black market or for money to send home. Those who are caught are sent to one of the political prison camps for 're-education', and it is in these places that many abortions take place. These abortions are often administered via injection, and they will occur no matter how advanced the pregnancy. Horror stories of abortions carried out by the woman being beaten are common. When a live baby is born, the mother is often forced to kill her own child. Reported incidents witnessed by defectors include smothering with plastic sheets to a young woman forced to drown her baby in a bucket whilst guards pointed guns at her.

The prison camps of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea tell a story of such abject cruelty and inhuman suffering as to be worthy of the holocaust. In most prison camps births are forbidden, similarly resisting being raped by a guard is forbidden. The harrowing tale of Shin Dong-hyuk paints a brutal picture of child labour, starvation and torture. Dong-hyuk, who was born in the Kaechon internment camp, still bears scars from where he was hung from the ceiling by his hands and feet whilst a fire was lit under his back, the lacerations across his legs from crawling through the electric fence over the body of a friend will never heal properly. The psychological scars from reporting his own mother and brother to the guards for planning an escape attempt and being forced to watch their executions are too horrific to imagine.

It is not even possible to lead an ordinary life in the DPRK, everything you can be, relies on your family. Only the loyal elite are permitted to live in the capital of Pyongyang whilst the policies of the regime ensure that there is more specific deterrent against unorthodox behaviours. It is a simple fact that if a grandfather were to be accused of aiding American soldiers during the Korean War (or the Homeland Liberation War in the DPRK) then he, his children, and his grandchildren would be arrested. Three generations condemned for the actions of one. It is a fearsome way to buy loyalty and one that relies on a sycophantic attitude towards the leadership. The US soldier, Charles Robert Jenkins, who defected to North Korea in 1965 tells of regular 'self-criticism' sessions in which they were required to declare the ways they had failed to live up to the teachings of Kim Il-Sung. Jenkins admits he and the three other US defectors he had to live with used to make up a quick list in the morning, like school-children running through their homework the day it's to be handed in. Should the authorities find reason to question your failings you would be brought before the 'Thought Examination Committee'; a term that resonates with Orwellian literature.

As horrific and bizarre as this all sounds to us in the West, these things are accepted in the DPRK. Visitors to Pyongyang are encouraged to pay their respects to the eternal president Kim Il-Sung and to the 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong-Il; both of whom lay in a resplendent mausoleum, embalmed and on display. This macabre visitor’s attraction is a shining example of North Korea's priorities,  a country with so little electricity as to be able to fully power the capital city but makes sure the two previous Kims are suitably air-conditioned.


The late Kim Jong-Il admitted to the systematic kidnapping of several foreign nationals over the years. Often to train North Korean agents and spies in languages and customs of another nation, such as the Japanese nurse Hitomi Soga who was married to Charles Jenkins (both now live safely in Japan) or the South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok who was kidnapped along with his wife, actress Choi Eun-hee for the strange purpose of building a North Korean film industry. BBC journalist John Sweeny interviewed people with connections to the IRA for his book on North Korea. Several men from the IRA were flown to the DPRK and trained in various activities from demolitions to marksmanship. From abductions to funding terrorism, North Korea has been waging a semi-clandestine war against the world for years. This latest outburst is, arguably, it's most successful strike.

Recently the United Nations voted in favour of referring the leaders of North Korea to the International Criminal Court. A noble gesture perhaps but one that is futile. If the DPRK can be relied on for one thing it is ignoring the outside world. The famine that struck in 1994 caused death, malnutrition, and stunted growth. Even reports of cannibalism became commonplace in the northern reaches of the country. Yet the rhetoric from the regime simply became more hyperbolic, the 'military-first' mentality was born. There is only one way to bring the leaders of North Korea to justice, only one way to help the poverty stricken masses. Time.

Cracks are slowly showing, it is possible to get 3G and wifi signals in certain parts of the DPRK from South Korea. No matter how hard it tries the North cannot entirely prevent citizens from accessing the internet. As technology improves more devices are smuggled across the borders, more defectors are able to escape to South Korea and tell their story. The execution of Kim Jong-Un's uncle is a sign that the new dictator may not be as secure as we think, an idea that is reinforced in light of increased threats towards the South.

Ignoring the threats and the bluster is a weapon against the regime. Sony Pictures decision to cancel 'The Interview' and Paramounts instruction to cinemas about not airing 'Team America' instead have given Kim Jong-Un a plausible (if farcical) victory to his cohorts. He can declare that when North Korea threatens the world will bow to the ‘iron-willed brilliant commander’.

When the full extent of the holocaust was revealed in 1945, the world declared 'if only we'd known'. Similar things are happening in North Korea every day. Right now. It is estimated that perhaps 200,000 people are currently held in prisons like the Kaechon camp. No doubt the atrocities we hear about are simply the tip of the iceberg, when the full extent finally reaches the world what then will our excuse be?


By Iain Grant


To read more about North Korea, the author suggests: North Korea Undercover by John Sweeney, Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden, and The Reluctant Communist by Jim Frederick and Charles Robert Jenkins.

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload

Want to respond? Submit an article.


We provide a space for reasoned arguments and constructive disagreements.

Help to improve the quality of political debate – support our work today.