PYONGYANG, North Korea — North Korea is known infamously for its dictatorship and extreme secrecy. It is an Orwellian country of political prisons, controlled media and extreme punishment. It is estimated that one out of every 100 North Koreans is a political prisoner. NASA estimated one prison camp’s size as being larger than the District of Columbia. Poverty is rampant in the country and hunger is a familiar issue. Supermarkets display needed goods and products but do not sell them, while television is limited to one station, which praises the leader and warns of imminent attack by the United States and other countries.
Growing up in North Korea has been reported as traumatizing, and though seemingly hopeless, a few citizens do successfully escape and live to tell their story to the world.
1. Shin Dong-hyuk
Shin Dong-hyuk is one of these citizens. He was born in Prison Camp 14, where he spent the first 23 years of his life. Along with 15,000 other North Koreans in Camp 14, Dong-hyuk performed hard labor while starving. Born in the camp, Dong-hyuk had no awareness of the outside world. Prison Camp 14 was his world.
Anderson Cooper asked Dong-hyuk if he knew what love was. Dong-hyuk responded, “I still don’t know what that means.” Dong-hyuk knew fear quite well, however. He watched his teacher beat a little girl to death for hoarding a few kernels of corn. Public executions were a regular occurrence and prisoners were required to watch.
The living conditions were so horrible at Camp 14 that Dong-hyuk, like other prisoners, considered these executions a break from hard labor and consistent hunger. Prisoners were only fed a small ration of corn meal and cabbage. This extreme hunger resulted in prisoners eating rats and insects to survive.
Dong-hyuk’s mother and brother were caught attempting to escape, and as a result, Dong-hyuk was tortured and forced to watch their execution. Dong-hyuk, however, felt no emotion regarding the execution. He expressed to 60 Minutes that he felt they deserved it because they broke camp rules.
Upon hearing stories from fellow prisoner, Park, Dong-hyuk’s eyes were finally opened to the outside world. He was told stories of the food that people ate in other countries and this alone inspired him to escape. Before reaching China, as a fugitive in rural North Korea, Dong-hyuk described it as heaven, despite the extreme poverty. After making his way through China, Dong-hyuk eventually reached the South Korean consulate.
The culture shock and transition into the free world took a toll on his mental health. Dong-hyuk was the one who turned his mother and brother in for attempting to escape and this troubled him the most. After seeing family life in the outside world, this was hard for him to overcome. Dong-hyuk stated, “If I could meet my mother and brother through a time machine I would like to go back and apologize. By telling this story I think I can compensate, kind of repent for what I did.” He now speaks at human rights rallies and has developed a talk show focused on raising awareness of issues in North Korea.
2. Hyeonseo Lee
Hyeonseo Lee grew up thinking her country was the best on the planet. At seven, Lee saw her first public execution yet still thought her life was a normal one. She was not poor and had not gone hungry in her country like so many others. It wasn’t until 1995 that she first became aware of her people’s suffering.
Lee’s mom received a letter from her daughter saying, “When you read this, all five family members will not exist in this worldbecause we haven’t eaten for the past two weeks. We are lying on the floor together, and our bodies are so weak we are ready to die.” This was followed with a horrifying experience in which Lee witnessed a woman lying on the ground at a train station with her emaciated child in her arms, helpless. Yet no one stopped to help, they were too focused on taking care of their own families. As a result of famine, Lee was sent to live in China with distant relatives. She would not see her family in North Korea for 14 years.
While in China, Lee lived in fear because North Korean refugees are considered illegal immigrants and are often repatriated back to North Korea when discovered. In two separate incidents Lee narrowly escaped this fate. After a decade spent hiding in China, Lee decided to make her way to South Korea. Readjusting to life in South Korea was difficult. Not longer after arriving Lee received a disturbing phone call.
The North Koreans had intercepted money Lee was sending to her family, and as a result they were going to be moved to a desolate countryside. In response, Lee began to plan her family’s escape from North Korea. The long journey included bribing border officials and the jailing of her family, all of which ended when Lee ran out of money at the border of South Korea in Laos.
Lee felt hopeless, and then she heard a man’s voice at the police station asking what was wrong. After Lee explained, the man went directly to the ATM and took out the money to bail Lee’s family and two other North Koreans out of jail. Lee was grateful for his kindness and upon asking him why he helped her, the man replied, “I’m not helping you. I’m helping the North Korean people.”
3. Yeonmi Park
For Yeonmi Park, growing up in North Korea was the equivalent to living in hell. There were regular power outages, no access to transportation and most disturbing of all was the disappearance of her friends. Despite all this, Park believed Kim Jong-il to be a god who was able to read her thoughts.
Park would attempt to control her thoughts for fear that she might disappear like her friends. After her escape, these fears remained. After several years in China and eventually South Korea, Park finally began to feel relief. She described seeing the Internet and books as the equivalent of seeing truth for the first time. Yeonmi was not afraid anymore.
4. Monique Macias
Monique Macias lived a somewhat different life in North Korea. Monique lived in the capital of North Korea for 15 years as an African exile. Monique’s father, Macias Nguema, leader of Equatorial Guinea, sent his wife and children to Pyongyang, North Korea before his eventual trial and execution in the late 1970s.
Monique and her brother Francisco were educated at the same prestigious military academy that trained Kim Jong-il. Her education involved learning how to shoot, survival drills, and as for many other North Korean students, emphasis was placed on anti-Americanism.
Growing up in North Korea, she shared toasts with Kim Jung-Sung’s second wife, went on camping trips with the head teacher of her school and received encouragement from Kim-il Sung himself. Monique seemed to live, for the most part, a relatively luxurious life in North Korea.
Despite her upbringing she understands that most North Koreans do not live this way. Many recent reports on North Korea highlight the beginnings of a breakdown of the central power system in the country. Monique disagrees, stating that it will not collapse easily and that it will be a very slow process as was seen with China.
Monique, now in her 40s, lives with relatives in Spain and has released her memoirs entitled, “I’m Monique, From Pyongyang,” written in her first language, Korean.
5. Joseph Kim
Joseph Kim and his family struggled against poverty and lived during the famine in North Korea. Kim knows hunger well. On his ninth birthday his parents could not afford to give him food to eat. One million North Koreans died during this famine; Kim’s father was one of them.
In the same year his mother and sister disappeared to China to get money and food for their family. He has not seen them since. As an orphan, Kim dug in the trash for bread, stole from food carts and worked in coal mines for 16 hours a day. Many orphans had a similar experience. Hunger pains and the cold kept him awake at night.
Kim overheard stories of escape at night but also the severe punishment that resulted for those who tried. Kim crossed during the daytime and escaped to China at age 16. In China, he lived in fear of being caught, never truly feeling free. Eventually, Kim met an individual who ran an underground shelter for North Koreans and after some time there an activist helped Kim escape to America.
Kim credits his hope as a main reason he survived. It gave him the energy to try. However, Kim also notes that hope alone cannot solve the problem. It is those who helped him along the way that made it possible for him to come to America.
If there is a lesson one can take away from these stories, it is that people around the world can help, and that help can make all the difference. Though a problem may seem larger than life, it does not mean it cannot be solved. Poverty, hunger and injustice are only unsolvable problems when people do not try to solve them. If hope can help people survive in the worst of conditions, then hope can also guide and motivate efforts to solve the very problems that create those conditions.