The late Christopher Hitchens, one of the greatest anti-totalitarian thinkers of the late 20th century, had an interesting anecdote he often used when discussing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), commonly known as North Korea. Hitchens remarked how North Korea’s first dictator, Kim Il-Sung, the grandfather of the current ruler Kim Jong-un, seized power the same year in which George Orwell published 1984. He half-sarcastically remarks that it seems that Kim Il-Sung modeled the totalitarian society found in the book into his communist state. Maybe, as Hitchens jests, Il-Sung turned to one of his close associates and said, “Let’s see if we can make it work.”
Never has there been a people as enslaved and dehumanized as those in Stalin’s USSR or Nazi Germany as the North Korean people. Some of the statistics regarding this group seem impossible to an outsider’s perspective. According to the 2016 Global Hunger Index, more than 40 percent of the North Korean population is undernourished. Almost 30 percent of North Korean children suffer from extreme growth stunting. Hitchens, one of a handful of Western journalists who entered all three countries of former President George W. Bush’s axis of evil (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea), reports that the average North Korean citizen, if one can even call them such, as six inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts.
Any hint of political dissidence, including a failure to echo some of the most bizarre claims of the Dear Leader, will send your straight to a forced labor camp. But that's not all. Many punishments in North Korea are intergenerational. Thus, there are people currently in concentration camps because their parents or grandparents may have somehow questioned the legitimacy of the totalitarian regime. Many of these crimes are reported by neighbors of the accused who will receive some extra food for their snitching.
Hitchens, before his death in 2011, claimed that his greatest failure as a writer and intellectual was his inability to accurately depict the abject suffering the North Korean people face on a daily basis.
And that is exactly where the problem lies. We often think of North Korea as a comical survivor of the Cold War, or as an international diplomatic or military threat. We think far too less about the millions who suffer every second of their lives in that pit of despair, whether the suffering comes in the form of concentration camps, political repression, malnourishment, or brainwashing.
When one hears about North Korea in the West, I find it comes in two forms: the first is that of the international threat the regime poses in the form of nuclear weapons and the second comes in the form of memes about the bizarre claims about the regime and its strict communist philosophy of juche. It seems that only dissident refugees and political experts are the ones who believe the suffering of its people to be a primary point about any possible action taken against the regime.
One of the most popular and widely used responses to North Korea used in the West come in the form of economic sanctions, raising the prices of various goods including food. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, more than 60 percent of those polled believe that increasing economic sanctions on the DPRK as the most efficient way of dealing with the regime. If it worked with Iran, it must work with North Korea, right?
The problem with economic sanctions against a nation is that its efficacy is based on the assumption that the government cares about the wellbeing of its people. North Korea has been the lone regime since 1945, or 1953 (the death of Stalin), that views its inhabitants as resources that can be utilized and wasted for the benefit of the state. The widespread despair that often follow a famine is not hid by government media; in fact, it is highlighted as a form of propaganda, claiming the Western capitalist nations wish to starve out the proletariat nation of Korea. One of the greatest famines came in 1991, when grain coming from the USSR stopped following the collapse of the Soviet regime in Moscow. North Korea has been and currently remains the most diplomatically isolated nation on the Earth. Their only pseudo-ally has been China, who militarily supported Kim Il-Sung during the Korean War in the 1950s.
The way the current administration views the North Korean threat seemingly is an ad hominem attack on Donald Trump and the American people from Kim Jong-Un. I do not wish to diminish the possibility of a nuclear attack from the DPRK on Japan, South Korea, and the United States, because its probability is the highest it has ever been by many standards. Considering what the regime is willing to put its own people through, I have no doubts regarding the horrors the government would want drop upon the enemy civilians. I only wish that when we discuss economic sanctions, military operations or assassination attempts to curl the regime, we remember that there are 25 million people who are unable to comprehend the very notion of freedom.
Jason Beck is a Trinity sophomore. His column usually runs on alternate Tuesdays.