POC ISSUES: North Korea Roots

Hanna Kim '21

POC Columnist

When I first introduce my ethnicity to others, I say I’m full Korean. After all, both my parents have the last name, Kim! However, nine times out of ten, the person I’m talking to will follow up by asking me whether I am North Korean or South Korean Honestly, at first I thought it was kind of funny, but now that I’ve heard it so many times, it just sounds dull and overused.

My grandparents are both immigrants from Seoul, South Korea. They met while taking an English class, both holding aspirations to live and work in the United States. My grandpa was working as an interpreter for an American general and my grandma was finishing up medical school at the start of the Korean War. I always remember my grandma telling stories of her two-week voyage on a small ship to the states, ow she was excited for the new opportunities, but terrified of leaving her war-torn home. They settled in La Jolla, California, where my mother and my uncle grew up.

My grandparents have owned an apartment in Seoul for quite sometime now. They go back multiple times a year and admire how their country has evolved into a bustling, technological, and cultural empire, even after the Japanese colonization and the Korean War. They love socializing with new people and taking the subway to explore new neighborhoods.

Lately, however, my family has tried to convince them not to go to Korea. There have recently been many relevant current events regarding the United States, North Korea, and South Korea. The encroaching US military threat on the Korean peninsula by the US Navy, and the establishment of ballistic missile defense systems in South Korea has prompted North Korea to retaliate by testing many of its ballistic missiles. While closely following recent news in North and South Korea, I stumbled upon the story of a North Korean defector and immediately both my emotional and intellectual interests shifted from a more macroscopic analysis of the current events to a very human desire to understand and empathize with the storytellers that managed to survive and escape North Korea. After reading many of these stories, it soon dawned on me that while I had became versed in the politics in North Korea, I had little to no understanding on the humanitarian issues facing North Koreans today.

Photo courtesy of the Daily Dot

Photo courtesy of the Daily Dot

North Koreans defectors, like most refugees, defect in search of a better life. For the majority of the population, basic human needs are not met and food security is a national issue. According to BBC, Approximately 70 percent  of the North Korean population relies on the government for food aid and 40 percent of the population is malnourished

In some ways, aspects of North Korean society resemble the story of the Allegory of the Cave. Both are instances of an almost completely isolated environment under constant control with limited to no access of the outside world. Shackles limit the movement of prisoners in the Allegory of the Cave, while government propaganda and strict enforcement of laws shackle the free will of the North Korean people. The only instances of freedom and happiness are represented through shadows, censored media, and other government controlled methods that only reveal a fraction of the real image. The punishment for being caught outside of the cave is brutal. Yeonmi Park, a North Korean defector, described how watching a smuggled copy of the Titanic ultimately made her realize that a world exists outside of her current reality. But if she had been caught watching that foreign movie, she could have been sentenced to several years in forced labor or even publically executed, according to the Huffington Post ().

Most who try to escape North Korea have to pay Chinese traders and sell their bodies to  live in South?  Korea as illegal immigrants. They are constantly at risk of being caught, deported back to North Korea, and could face punishments that would not only put their lives at risk, but also their families.

Those that are caught and sent back to North Korea may have to spend several years in forced labor and prison camps. I would start by saying that the prison system in North Korea is an inhumane and ancient relic. Prisoners are sent to labor camps where they often were forced to work for 15-16 hour days. Many are fed rotten corn meal, or are forced to eat insects and other animals that they can find. One mentioned how they caught rats, but had to eat them raw as cooking them over a fire could risk alerting the guards. If prisoners were discovered trying to cook their own food, they could become subject to more torture and punishment, according to BBC (North Koreans defectors who have lived as prisoners in these labor camps and escaped discussed how small, seemingly innocent mounds in the labor camp were actually burial grounds for hundreds of deceased prisoners. Perhaps most disturbing was that the hundreds of decaying dead bodies within the ground allowed for flowers to grow well on top (Hancocks, CNN).

I read these stories and think that for me to be able to leisurely discuss current events from the perspective of an outsider while many North Koreans’ sole concern is to survive is such a privileged position to be in. Ever since Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who was detained for trying to steal a political banner, fell into a coma and later died, North Korea has been one of the centers of the news. His parents spoke out after their son’s death, saying “North Korea is not a victim," Fred Warmbier said. "They're terrorists. They kidnapped Otto. They tortured him. They intentionally injured him. They are not victims." However, reading the stories of North Korean defectors made me realize just how much I focused on the macroscopic issues rather than on the very human realities of the North Korean people.

I have thought deeply about solutions and humanitarian efforts that could help temporarily, but honestly I don’t have any suggestions on how to fix the problem without direct military involvement. As a community who is politically well-versed, I hope this article inspires you to look at the news beyond just a surface level perspective, and to instead try to empathize and psychologically understand others’ struggles.




"North Korea hunger: Two in five undernourished, says UN." BBC News. BBC, 22 Mar. 2017. Web. 13 May 2017.

Hancocks, Paula. "Defectors describe horror, heartbreak in North Korea's labor camps." CNN. Cable News Network, 29 May 2012. Web. 13 May 2017.

Okamoto, Nadya. "The Story Of A North Korean Defector." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 13 Mar. 2017. Web. 13 May 2017.

"Starving prisoners in North Korea were forced to eat snakes and rats." BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 14 May 2017.