Yesterday, a prominent North Korean defector expressed in an interview his belief that the Kim dynasty is nearing its last days ruling the North. The defector is Thae Yong-ho, once North Korea’s deputy ambassador to Britain and also one of the highest ranked defectors ever from the “Hermit Kingdom”. Mr. Thae believes that a popular uprising could, seemingly soon, topple the ruling North Korean regime. The basis for his belief is the growing dissemination of information in North Korea. The thinking is that as ordinary North Koreans learn the truth about their country, then they will be inspired to rise up. I, for one, am not so sure.
It is important to note now that North Korea is not called the “Hermit Kingdom” for nothing. Almost all reporting and predictions about North Korea are more or less sheer speculation. Nobody has a clear idea of what is really happening in the country, how the people think, how the leadership thinks, etc. At least two things are understood however: the regime is brutal, and that propaganda is pervasive to the point that most North Koreans have virtually zero (accurate) knowledge of the world outside. North Korean textbooks contain events that never happened, even in part. But what many in the outside world do not realize is the extent of the brutality and desperation of life within North Korea. The brutality and poverty of the country is unprecedented in human history (at least for a country not being actively or recently invaded). North Korea has its closest mirrors in dystopian science fiction. Indeed, off the top of my head, a startlingly close comparison to North Korea is found in the Hunger Games series.
This story, from another North Korean defector, paints a grim picture of life in the country. I will summarize the story here but I urge you to read it yourselves. In his childhood, Sungju Lee lived in relative prosperity and comfort in the capital Pyongyang. In ’94, with a new Kim in power, the family was forced to leave to an outlying province. Classes were interrupted so the students could observe public executions. People resorted to foraging to feed themselves. Sungju parents abandoned him and he started a street gang to survive. Eventually, his did reunite with his father and fled the country. But Sungju Lee’s story is not alone, many defectors have spoken about the appalling levels of poverty and the arbitrary and frequent violence by regime officials.
North Korea operates its own caste system, known as the Songbun. Every person in the country is rated according to their family’s history of loyalty to the regime. “Songbun was used to decide all aspects of a person’s existence in North Korean society” (Human Rights Watch). Your level in the Songbun system determines where you will live, your job, what food you will get, etc. Access to Pyongyang is denied to those without a suitable Songbun level, except as temporary laborers. In terms of violence, a 2014 report by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations states that “Almost every citizen of the DPRK has become a witness to an execution, because they are often performed publicly in central places”. The full report is almost 400 pages long, detailing truly horrific examples of arbitrary violence.
I do not believe that most North Koreans need more reasons to desire regime change. They do not need to be aware of the splendor of New York or Seoul to understand their torment. Everyday is filled with terror and despair, regardless of knowledge of the outside world. Without the means to liberate themselves, that knowledge merely engenders a further sense of hopelessness and powerlessness. Most people are too preoccupied with mere survival to begin to contemplate something greater. Unfortunately, I believe that the North Korean regime will only be brought down by force: foreign invasion, coup, civil war, etc. Until the regime’s monopoly of force is broken, fear will continue to keep the populace submissive.