Image from www.pbs.org
North Korea, notoriously known as one of the worst countries in the world to live in, is even more unbearable than what meets the eye. Under one of the worst authoritarian regimes in the world, North Korea violates most of the basic human rights; the U.S. Department of State lists the following as some of the basic rights violated by the North Korean government: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government; forced disappearances by the government; torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and punishment by government authorities; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including in political prison camps, etc. The political scene in North Korea makes it almost impossible for Western countries to be of aid; since they are in an alliance with China and Russia, two of the most powerful countries in the world, the chances of this issue being resolved in the foreseeable future is unfortunately next to impossible.
What is Authoritarianism?
By definition, authoritarianism is a governance of a state where strict obedience is enforced. However, authoritarianism looks different in certain situations. For example, one can consider Gaddafi as one of the most known authoritarian leaders, where he followed his own system of governance in Libya, including extreme violence against the loyalists. The North Korean authoritarian government differs from this; being led by Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader, North Koreans live a life isolated from every other country. However, authoritarian-led countries all have one thing in common - their freedoms are close to being absent.
One of the greatest issues in North Korea is starvation - with the average North Korean earning between $1,000-1,500 a year, providing a sufficient amount of food to survive is difficult. In comparison to South Korea, the average North Korean earns about 4%, or one twenty-seventh of the average South Korean yearly income. This poverty is correlated to the totalitarian regime of North Korea - under the governance of an authoritarian government, it is estimated that about 60% of North Koreans fall below the poverty line and are food insecure.
2. No Freedom of Speech
In North Korea, the freedom of speech is extremely limited, to the point where one could assume that it is close to nonexistent. If one speaks against the government, it would likely result in measures such as torture, disappearances, and even killing of those who disobeyed the government. However, it is not the lack of freedom of speech that places the biggest problem on North Koreans, it is the extreme restriction of information which poses the greater issue. In North Korea, there is no internet connection to any other country, no media that is not approved by the government, and no international calls. Along with this, there are copious amounts of propaganda being spread by the government, such as messages of the Western world’s inferiority being taught in schools. This raises an interesting statement which many North Korean defectors reflect on; if one is born into a country with propaganda and restrictions, they likely believe that it is the correct way to live, and that they are free within their conditions.
3. Concentration Camps
When one disobeys the North Korean government, one of the probable punishments is to be placed into a concentration camp. There are roughly 130,000 North Koreans being held in four primary concentration camps, where they are forced to do complicated labor with little to no food. These camps are being compared to those of Auschwitz and those in China for the Uyghur people, yet there is far less information about them due to the seclusion of the North Korean government.
4. Locked Borders
Something that is almost definite in North Korea is that if one was born in the country, they will almost certainly never see the outside. The North Korean borders are heavily monitored, and one can only leave the country with permission from the North Korean government. However, there are several dangerous and complicated ways in which one can escape. The North Korean and South Korean border is one of the most dangerous places in the world; the border is covered with high walls, electric fences, millions of land mines, and millions of North Korean soldiers. In 2017, an unnamed North Korean man ran across the border and successfully made it to South Korea after being shot 5 times and losing half of his blood. However, most people who attempt this are not so lucky, and end up losing to one of the multitude of barricades. Other methods of fleeing include going to Russia or China, but they have orders to return any North Koreans they find to their country, which would result in extreme punishments. Since it is close to impossible to escape North Korea, most citizens never try, leaving them under a lifetime of authoritarian control.
5. Military Spending
As of the year 2020, it has been reported that North Korea spends about 24% of its GDP on its military. Though this may not seem like a notable issue, it has significance in terms of what the North Korean military is used for. The North Korean military is the fourth largest army in the world, with a total of 1.2 million militants. Additionally, it is estimated that North Korea has at least 60 nuclear weapons, along with a multitude of chemical and biological weapons. This information concludes that North Korea is a dangerous force to face, thus resulting in what appears to be apathy from the Western world’s governments. It is evident that a potential war with North Korea would be extremely brutalizing, which makes it even more difficult for the U.S. to take action towards saving North Korean citizens.
Yeonmi Park, author of In Order to Live, is a North Korean defector who escaped with her family when she was 13 years old. She now lives in the United States and runs a YouTube channel titled, Voice of North Korea by Yeonmi Park, where she speaks about her life in North Korea, along with the current conditions of the country. In her TED Talk in 2019, Park asks the audience, “Imagine your apartment building caught fire: what would you do? Would you stay there to be burned, or would you jump off the window and see what happens?” The power in her story is evident, making her one of the voices which the world must listen to.