Japan's Must-Read Magazine

It`s Grim Up North

When you think about North Korea, what do you think about?
Abductions and nuclear tests?  Kim Jong Il`s paunch and bouffant?
Or, the biggest human rights crisis in the world?

With all the attention paid here in Japan to the abductions in the 1970s of a small number of citizens, it`s easy not to know that no-one has suffered more under Kim`s regime than the North Korean people themselves.  Since the 1990s, two million people have starved to death, and thirteen million (of a population of 23 million) are permanently malnourished.  This is down to a combination of famine, mismanagement, ideologically driven punishment, and simple corruption.  Aid agencies such as Oxfam and Medecins Sans Frontiers have given up and gone home, despairing at the regime`s intransigence.

And your average starving North Korean would be unwise to complain.  The thought police are everywhere, minions of a regime which makes 1984 seem like a liberal paradise.  Listening to a South Korean pop song, failing to take proper care of your portrait of the Dear Leader, re-tuning your TV away from the state channel  –  all these crimes against the state and many, many, many more are punishable with a one-way trip to a labour camp.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people want away, but if they can survive the perilous crossing into China without freezing, drowning or being shot, their problems are far from over.  China refuses to recognise them as refugees, insisting they are all `economic migrants`, and shipping back to North Korea anyone they catch.  Leaving North Korea is a capital offence, and at best, refouled refugees can look forward to imprisonment and torture, with the bonus of forced abortion for any women who become pregnant while in China (highly likely, as many refugees are sold into prostitution).  China allows North Korean agents to operate freely in the border area  –  a privilege denied to UNHCR representatives  –  and offers rewards to anyone turning in a refugee or one of the activists who help them.

These activists form an `underground railroad`, who shelter refugees in safe houses while they are in China, and try to smuggle them to third countries.  A powerful short documentary called `Seoul Train` (www.seoultrain.com) follows some of these activists in their attempts to smuggle refugees out of China, with mixed results.  And the activists also receive help from organisations such as Liberty in North Korea (www.linkglobal.org) and Life Funds for North Koeran Refugees (www.northkoreanrefugees.com).

While it may seem like it, I`m not trying to fish for donations here;  but they`d certainly be welcome.  It doesn`t take much to send a set of winter clothes  –  the refugees don`t pack much  –  so that they can (1) keep warm, and (2) not stand out and attract the police`s attention.  Or, you could buy a copy of Seoul Train, or a cool T-shirt from the Link online store.

It`ll help people who really, really can`t help themselves.