January 14, 2014

NORTH KOREA: Life Inside The Surreal, Cruel And Sheltered North Korea. Excellent Detailed Piece!

The New York Post
written by Maureen Callahan
Saturday January 11, 2014

In so many ways, Dennis Rodman seems the diplomat North Korea deserves: defiant, unpredictable, irrational, unhinged.

Yet the comic aspects of his so-called “basketball diplomacy” — the drunken defense of dictator Kim Jong-un on CNN; serenading Kim with “Happy Birthday”; gifting him with several bottles of his own liquor, Bad Ass Vodka; allowing his “Dream Team” of motley ex-and wannabe NBA players to lose to the North Koreans — has turned the most brutal regime in the world into a punchline for late-night comics.

Lost among the jokes is the suffering of the average North Korean — the 24.7 million who live in abject poverty in the world’s most isolated nation.

North Korea’s human-rights record has been condemned by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the United Nations. Aside from saber-rattling, the government maintains little communication with the outside world.

The nation has so little electricity that, in the ultimate metaphor, nighttime satellite imagery shows North Korea gone dark, the only country in the world not illuminated. Travelers are only allowed to move within a circumscribed part of Pyongyang and are chaperoned and surveilled by government officials.

So: What do we really know about life inside the Hermit Kingdom?

Steven Seagal Behind the Curtains

In North Korea, a ballpoint pen is considered a luxury item. Men make it to their mid-20s without knowing that women menstruate, or what menstruation even is. The use of anesthesia for surgery is a fairly recent development. There is no sex education. You can marry for love, but only within your own social caste — determined by birth and generational loyalty to the regime.

In the fascinating feature called “Ask a North Korean” on the site NKNews.org, a series of four defectors have answered questions submitted by readers from all over the world. One asked what North Koreans do for fun.

“People do not have much in the way of individual pastimes under the totalitarian system in North Korea,” wrote Mina Yoon, a 20-something who defected in 2010. “The idea of ‘free time’ is not really common. Then, even if you do have free time, there aren’t many things to enjoy anyway.”

Mina’s family was lucky: they were one of the few families to have a TV, a gift to her father for his work performance. Children from all over would crowd into her living room, bribing her with what little food they had. And all they had to watch, like most North Koreans, was the lone state-run channel. Some daring souls would watch smuggled DVDs from the West, covering their windows with blankets — a transgression that, if discovered, still means hard time in a labor camp.

Not that long ago, it was a crime punishable by death.

“I will never forget the time when a group of friends and I gathered, covering the window with a thick duvet and fastening two or three locks to the door so we could watch Steven Seagal action movies,” defector Ji-Min Khan wrote.

Ji-Min belonged to an elite family, and so he lived in the capital city of Pyongyang, the most developed, and least restricted, area of North Korea. It was the world he saw in American movies that made him want to leave.

“I needed to know the taste of freedom myself,” he wrote, “and I wanted to see it with my own eyes.”

This is a radical notion for a country that punishes defectors with the threat of execution — and even if they escape, they must live with the fear that their families will be killed. The entire nation is a hive of East German-era paranoia, where anyone — from a neighbor to a family member — may be a spy or informant, ratting you out for an ill-advised criticism or complaint.

Jae Young Kim, another defector, wrote of a North Korean proverb: “The bird listens during the day and the mouse does at night.”

“You’re always being watched,” he writes. “From a young age, I learned to think of the potential consequences of everything I might say, before I said it. . . Criticism of the leaders is something that can lead to someone being sent from their city to the countryside; to a prison camp, or even worse.”

An Assigned Future, Rationed Food

Other infractions that have serious consequences: Girls cannot ride bicycles; it’s considered lascivious. Religion is a threat to the state and is banned; instead, children are raised to worship the late Kim Il-sung, who was made “president for life” four years after his death, in 1998, by his son and successor, the late Kim Jong-il. There are 34,000 statues of Kim Il-sung in North Korea, and all wedding ceremonies must take place in front of one.

All citizens must hang government-provided portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in their homes, and once a month, the police come by to inspect them. All, too, must wear uniforms, and their future careers are based on caste and dictated by the government.

When she was in kindergarten, Mina Yoon was told she would become a doctor. “The teachers made sure that when anyone asked me about my dreams, I would answer: ‘I will study hard and be a medical doctor when I grow up. My dream is to make North Korean people healthy and well, and bring joy to Gen. Kim Il-sung.’ ”

But that was just propaganda. Had she not gotten out, she would have worked in a factory.

Jobs often come without salaries. Those who do get a paycheck, earn, on average, between $1,000-2,000 a year. Food and clothing are rationed by the government.

Most North Koreans have access to that one TV station and one newspaper, both state-run; they are told that their country is the only functioning and prosperous nation on Earth and that outside rages an apocalypse. Only elites are allowed cellphones, but they can just make calls or text — there is no Internet.

“The majority of North Koreans believe completely in the regime,” says Barbara Demick, a Seoul-based journalist and author of “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.”

“They are barely surviving,” she says. “Only the rich can afford to eat rice. They’re in a chronic state of food shortage.”

The average citizen eats twice a day — a manageable state of affairs for citizens who lived through the great famine of the ’90s, which reduced millions of people to eating tree bark and plucking undigested kernels of corn from animal excrement.

Starving in the Countryside

In September 2008, Demick became one of the few Westerners to travel beyond Pyongyang.

“I saw people who appeared to be homeless sleeping in the grass along the main street,” she writes. “Others squatted on their haunches, heads down, apparently having nothing else to do at 10 o’clock on a weekday morning. Walking barefoot along the sidewalk was a boy of about 9 years old wearing a mud-stained uniform that hung below his knees . . . older people sifted through grass on their hands and knees in search of edible weeds.”

One of Demick’s subjects, a young female doctor, was forced to strip apart the few clothes she owned to use as makeshift sanitary pads — no napkins or tampons were provided at medical school.

During the famine, this young doctor struggled to treat starving children as her own hospital went without heat and hot water. She eventually defected.

“She was only out for one hour when she saw that dogs eat better in China than doctors in North Korea,” Demick says. “Defectors very quickly realize their life is a lie. They’re modern-day Rip Van Winkles — they’ve woken up and been dropped into the modern world.”

Over the past several years, three North Koreans have been jailed for attempting to assassinate defectors who fled to South Korea. Since 2002, in the wake of the great famine of the 1990s, between 1,000-2,000 North Koreans a year flee — usually crossing the semi-porous border to China, then South Korea.

It is a treacherous undertaking: those who do not freeze to death might starve to death or be caught and turned back to face execution. Women defectors are highly vulnerable to sex trafficking.

“It is rampant,” says Tim Peters, founder of the aid group Helping Hands Korea. “North Korean women are so helpless — they cannot speak the language. They are without documents. There is the lack of a criminal-justice system in China, and the traffickers run wild. If the women aren’t sold to the sex trade, they are, equally as dangerously, sold as brides to Chinese men.”

But life inside North Korea is so desperate, Peters says, that they’re willing to take the risk. “They think, ‘If I’m a bride, at least I’ll have enough to eat.’”

Wonder at the Outside World

Once beyond the confines of the Hermit Kingdom, North Koreans cannot believe what the outside world has to offer. Unfamiliar with modern plumbing, they don’t know how to flush toilets. Water that runs all day, every day, astonishes, as does the abundance of food.

And then comes the larger realization: These people have freedoms.

“I have sat with refugees in farmhouses on the Chinese border, and they’re watching South Korean TV, and they see cellphones and fashion and washing machines, and their jaws hang open,” says Demick.

“Even a short while in China,” says Peters, “makes it clear how grossly they’ve been lied to their entire lives.”

Meanwhile, what must North Koreans, the most homogenous society in the world, make of this nearly 7-foot tall pierced, tattooed, boa-wearing basketball player, probably the first black man and American they’ve seen in person?

“North Koreans would highlight the suffering of blacks in America, and say ‘Here is a disaffected black American who has suffered,’ ” Peters says. “There is a reason they want to put him in the state-run narrative, but the rank and file would be extremely puzzled.”

And Kim’s basketball diplomacy isn’t going to be enough to staunch the flight of young people, who increasingly suspect the world outside must be better than within.

“Kim Jong-un has made it clear that even though his father was brutal, he will be even worse,” Peters says. “And his father was a very cruel man.”

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