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While most of Southeast Asia is experiencing economic growth and Westernization, one place remains a relic of a past political era responsible for the deaths of millions. The long shadow of Stalin manifests within history’s first and only patriarchal monarchy to enact the Communist Manifesto. Concentration camps dot the bleak landscape.
Ambitious highways remain empty of vehicles. Whole families are arrested, and hundreds of thousands toil in work camps as no other form of industry exists. Meanwhile, the entire country slowly starves to death. The world remains either unaware of such crimes against humanity, or is afraid of rousing North Korea’s powerful neighbor to the North, China.
No other country in the world has the same cult of personality as North Korea. Their leader, Kim Jong-il, is revered as nothing less than an omnipresent god. The Korean or ‘Forgotten War,’ of the early 1950s claimed 3 million lives and has never officially ended. The North, backed by the Communist powers of China and the USSR, fought the South, led by the Allied forces of the USA and Great Britain.
This was a ‘proxy’ war of opposing ideologies, a battleground for the world’s new superpowers to posture and display military might. North Korea has the fourth-largest standing army, and is the most militarized country in the world. A tense ceasefire remains to this day, and fire-fights occasionally burst along the 38th parallel.
In 2009, Kim Jong-il launched missiles over Japan’s North Island, claiming he was testing new technology to launch satellites. North Korea fired upon a disputed island in 2010, sending 1,200 civilians scrambling to seek safety in bomb shelters. These are only recent provocations; there have been over thirty such incidents since the ceasefire of July 1953.
Under the rule of founding leader, Kim il-Sung, the country experienced a period of relative prosperity in the 1960s and 70s. The disintegration of a key ally, the Soviet Union, and agrarian mismanagement in the 1990s killed a million people, causing devastation and famine throughout the country. Accounts by escapees describe resorting to eating grass and boiling roots to survive.
This neglect of agricultural and commercial necessities are eerily similar to policies enacted by Stalin in the Ukraine during their massive Holodomor Genocide of the early 1930s. Collective farming and the arrest and murder of landowners led to the death of 8 million peasants as a result of the Marx-Engels manifesto.
Former leader Kim il-Sung wrote his thesis known as Juche, a communist policy divergent from the Soviet style that is marked by an isolationist approach to all outside governments and strong North Korean nationalism. This ethos prohibits all contact with the outside world, thus very rarely is the voice of a North Korean heard.
The state-run media has no free press, and citizens are subject to ten-year work camp sentences if they are found to have tuned in to any broadcast outside the one and only state station. The few that escape and make it to the West tell of the most deplorable conditions imaginable.
Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a prison camp, tortured, and forced to watch the execution of his mother and brother after a failed escape attempt. He is now a human-rights activist, fighting for the liberation of his people. Refugees risk their life fleeing over the mountains north into China, and escape to South Korea is impossible.
A 160 mile long, 2.5 mile-wide fortified barrier keeps these two ethnically similar, yet politically opposed, countries apart. The only option is escaping into China, and eventually Mongolia where citizens can find refugee status. Many women become indentured servants or prostitutes.
China does not recognize North Koreans accordingly, and promptly return the captured back to North Korean authorities to face torture, starvation or execution. China’s actions have not gone unrecognized by the UN, which has condemned their policy.
Normally a very private dictatorship, conditions have become so dire that the regime allowed photographs of their children to be seen by the world due to a harsh winter and flooding of 2011. Analysts think this may be a last-ditch effort to garner money from the UN and South Korea, who have stopped their efforts after it was revealed that Kim Jung-il misappropriated such funds.
This October, UN undersecretary-general Valerie Amos claimed that 6 million North Koreans, particularly children, mothers and pregnant women, are at serious risk, and that wealthier countries need to put politics aside to provide aide. ”This is about helping the people who are most in need.
It’s not about saying that this country has made a choice about spending its resources in one way rather than another. We don’t make those judgments in other countries, on humanitarian grounds. There’s no reason to begin to do it in,” Amos said, according to the AP.