North Korea Blues

I was hustling through town the other day, looking for a new screen cover for my iPad. I was all in a tizz because I have an iPad 2, and since the iPad 3 has been released, all of the accessories for the former have become obsolete and disappeared from the shelves. It was cold and raining and I was getting fed-up, but I was adamant that I would find what I was looking for. Eventually, I found a store that still had some. I bought one and the shop assistant kindly put it on for me. End of drama.

It’s funny how we can get so wound up and frustrated over small things like this – the daily annoyances that piss us off and put us in a bad mood, like not being able to find a parking space, having to wait 15 minutes for your friend to show up or finding that the washing machine has eaten one of your favorite socks.

Shin Dong-hyuk talks about his book, Escape from Camp 14

The way we lose perspective of some things has been on my mind lately after reading my friend Barry Welsh’s interview with North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk.

Born into a prison camp, Shin witnessed the execution of his mother and brother (brought about by his own actions), was treated as a slave and tortured. He managed the almost-impossible act of escaping and defecting to the South where he currently lives and works as an activist.

In recent years, there have been an increasing number of books written and published by defectors who, through having their accounts translated into English, bring their experience and message to an international audience. It is one way to raise awareness of the abhorrent plight of those on the wrong side of the border, but it is not enough.

Often, it is incomprehensible to me that just a two-hour drive away from where I live is a country in which 24 million people suffer under a totalitarian regime that denies their freedom and independence. Over 100,000 citizens languish in prison camps while others are denied basic necessities such as food and electricity.

The best and most heart-breaking book I have read on the lives of North Koreans is

Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy

Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy. She closely follows a range of North Koreans over several years, both in North Korea and in the South after their defection. Each experiences a level of pain, humiliation, deprivation and loss that most of us will never encounter. Their emotional and mental resourcefulness, as well as their resilience and determination allows them to endure starvation, poverty, unemployment and stigmatization. It is a stark reminder that life is really fucking unfair.

In my own experience, I once volunteered to tutor a woman from North Korea through an NGO that supports defectors as they set up their lives in Seoul. We met once and I was struck by her small, lollipop-like frame – a result of childhood malnutrition. Despite the language barrier, she managed to communicate something of her story which involved making it to China, eventually to Shanghai where she taught herself Mandarin, worked for several years in “Import/Export” and finally to Seoul. I didn’t dare probe too much into her past as it is commonly known that females from the North have an easier time getting out as they have something to sell: themselves.

Unfortunately, she became ill with kidney disease and we never met again. Although, I sometimes think of her, especially when I’m having a bad day and remind myself to keep things in perspective and be grateful for what I do have. As Christmas nears, and I am surrounded by festive lights and hyper-consumerism, I wonder about those less fortunate and how we can help them?

1 Thought.

  1. Seoul Doll,
    A touching and heartfelt piece on helping others less fortunate. Indeed, how can we help?
    As I recently watched another fairly popular blog on South Korea post an article regarding U.S. intention to pressure China regarding north Korean refugees being returned back to nK, [ ROK Drop ], it seems to me that helping these miserable, suffering, and totally innocent human beings must begin with replying firmly to articles such as this. Although there is certainly not going to be a landslide of political pressure on China just from one little comment on a blog, I sincerely believe that just by leaving a comment that supports pressure to stop repatriating escaped nK prisoners is meaningful and has solid value and purpose. If I am able to soften the hard heart of just one single person, and bring their eyes to see the complete and utter hoplessness and wretched despair of these people, then it is, indeed, a small manner of helping them.
    I have read both of the books in your article, and also a few on the Kim regieme and its beginnings. Your work with the north Korean woman has had a profound impact on you, and thank you for sharing. I do not have any such personal experience with north Koreans, but I am deeply concerned that this festering evil will continue unabated for many years to come. How sad it is that such unfathomable suffering can be allowed to persist!
    I believe the end to this horror can only come through the brave but gentle waves of peaceful, persistent pressure. And by telling others, especially in the blog-o-sphere, there could be a tiny, gradual, swelling tide, up and against the evil.
    Take care,


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