The news of Kim Jong Il’s sudden death has triggered concern over the country’s future, as the world watches and waits for the communist state to emerge from mourning for the fallen dictator.
Victor Cha, a Georgetown University professor and the White House’s former director of Asian affairs, said Monday that most assessments inside or outside of the U.S. government suggest that the sudden death of the dictator would be the most likely scenario for a government collapse. “This is really the worst possible nightmare for the North Korean state,” he said, “this sudden death, and for the son to be taking over.”
For Cha, the likelihood of a very successful power transfer seems low. “This could collapse before our eyes,” he says.
The North Korean regime hasn’t always seemed this fragile.
The 'Dear Leader' Takes Power
When Kim Jong Il assumed power in North Korea in 1994, he inherited a struggling communist state, which promptly deteriorated under the dictator’s iron clasp. The country descended into a severe famine in 1995, which left more than 2 million North Koreans dead. Today, more than 15 years later, North Koreans are still dying of hunger.
Under Kim Jong Il’s regime, numerous aid organizations have been booted from the country, and the State Department has had to withhold food after discovering it was being re-routed to the military.
The eccentric dictator kept the nation largely in the dark, and punished political and religious thought with a vengeance.
In May of this year, Amnesty International published a new report on North Korea’s massive modern-day concentration camp system, estimating that the network of prisons held more than 200,000 political prisoners. Satellite images reveal that the camps stretch out over vast areas of wilderness found in North Korea’s South Pyongan, South Hamkyung and North Hamkyung provinces.
Life Inside Kim Jong Il’s Prison Camps
“Hundreds of thousands of people exist with virtually no rights, treated essentially as slaves, in some of the worst circumstances we’ve documented in the last 50 years,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Director. “These are places out of sight of the rest of the world, where almost the entire range of human rights protections that international law has tried to set up for last 60 years are ignored.”
Amnesty International interviewed Jeong Kyoungil, a former prisoner in the Yodok concentration camp, in April of this year. Kyoungil was arrested in 1999 and detained from 2000-2003.
Kyoungil describes a small cell where “30 or 40 political prisoners sleep,” and says that the prisoner’s schedules were brutal. “A day starts at 4 a.m. with an early shift, also called the ‘pre-meal shift’, until 7 a.m. Then breakfast from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. but the meal is only 200g of poorly prepared corn gruel for each meal. Then there is a morning shift from 8am to 12 p.m. and a lunch until 1 p.m. Then work again from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. and dinner from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. From 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., it’s time for ideology education. If we don’t memorize the ten codes of ethics we would not be allowed to sleep. This is the daily schedule.”
A Defector’s Testimony
Kyoungil was not alone in this experience. Another former prisoner, Soon Ok Lee, has published memoirs about her brutal experiences in a North Korean death camp. In 2002, Soon Ok Lee testified before Congress about her life as a political prisoner. "A prisoner has no right to talk, laugh, sing or look in a mirror,” she recounted. “Prisoners must kneel down on the ground and keep their heads down deeply whenever called by a guard; they can say nothing except to answer questions asked.”
Soon Ok Lee described a brutal world where “women prisoners' babies are killed on delivery,” a place where “prisoners have to work as slaves for 18 hours daily,” and “repeated failure to meet the work quotas means a week's time in a punishment cell.” She said, “A prisoner must give up her human worth.”
Speaking Against the Regime
Soon Ok Lee says that during her stay at Kaechon Prison, most of the people she was confined with should not have been considered political prisoners. They were just people, people who, according to Soon Ok Lee, dared to speak out about oppression and starvation. “They uttered a word, like this: ‘Why do we have to starve? If Kim Jong Il, the leader, is there, why do we have to starve?’ Such a complaining word made us get put in prison.”
It was the pleading eyes of her fellow prisoners upon her departure from prison that changed Soon Ok Lee’s life and compelled her to speak out for those who were oppressed. “When I was released, some 6,000 prisoners, both men and women, were crying and pleading with me in their hearts to let the outside world know of their suffering,” she said. “How can I ever forget their eyes?"
'Things are Going to Get Even Harder'
Liberty in North Korea (LINK), a nonprofit group that raises awareness for North Korean refugees, has interviewed several refugees about their views on the death of Kim Jong Il. “I worry about what this will mean for my relatives back inside and for the North Korean people,” says Park Yun-joo. “I fear that the relatives of defectors will be persecuted more. They are closing the markets and there are bound to be a lot of staged political events, so for the people that are already struggling things are going to get even harder.”
As the national mourning continues, Kang Bohee, another refugee from North Korea, says, “If you don’t cry in North Korea after the leader dies, then you could come under suspicion as being against the government.” She says anyone who doesn’t mourn publicly could be at risk. “Then you have to live with that label and suspicion for the rest of your life.”
Kristin Butler is a contributing writer at Crosswalk.com, where she covers topics related to human rights, religious freedom and refugee resettlement. For further articles, visit her website at kristinbutler.net or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Publication date: December 20, 2011