A man I loved dearly, my late father-in-law, Won Ryul Song, originally came from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. In 1946, when the Communists began their campaign to take over the Korean peninsula, he fled south and was one of the lucky ones who survived to tell stories of secret police officers seizing young men and forcing them either to fight alongside the Communists or to work in hard labor prisons. I would get chills when my father-in-law and his cousin Dr. Paik would describe the times when their relatives were taken away in the middle of the night and were never heard from or seen again. In Dr. Paik's case, he was just 8 years old when his father was abducted.
"They were bad," my father-in-law would say in reference to the Communist aggressors, "very bad."
Shortly after he passed away, his sister recounted the months he spent hiding in the countryside to evade capture and their mother's attempts to sneak food to him. She even described a time when a close friend was running from the Communist soldiers and was gunned down in front of her brother.
In 1953, a DMZ (demilitarized zone) was established along the 38th Parallel as a way of dividing the two Koreas. Today, though they share the same peninsula, North and South Korea are completely different countries.
Fifty seven years after they were separated, little is known about what actually goes on inside the mysterious nation of North Korea. In a metaphorical and literal sense, the country remains in the dark. Ironically, South Korea has, over the past six decades, arguably become the most technically advanced country on earth. On a recent trip to South Korea's capital, Seoul, I was blown away by how gadget-ized the country is—far more so even than the United States. I visited smart apartment buildings where air conditioning can be activated by mobile device. Conversely, most buildings in North Korea are unlikely to have air conditioning, and those that do are interrupted by frequent power outages.
North Korea's dictatorial leader, Kim Jong Il, known as the Dear Leader, is viewed inside his country as the closest thing to God. He has total control over his people: He is worshipped. Dissent is not tolerated; doubt the Dear Leader, and you can die. It is estimated that thousands of North Koreans have lost their lives or been sent to labor gulags for not adhering to and/or questioning their government's leadership. It is a country ruled by fear and constant reminders that someone is watching. Kim's images, along with those of his father, Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, are everywhere, including inside people's homes.
From the day a North Korean is born, she is introduced to dogma that tells them her that her country is constantly in danger of being attacked by mortal enemies: South Korea and the United States. They are schooled in North Korean Communist–style propaganda from birth. People in the country aren't permitted to know much about other countries except when disasters and calamities strike other parts of the world. The messages to the North Korean people are clear: All other countries are plagued by chaos, so feel lucky to live here where the Dear Leader loves you and promises to provide for you.
It is this blind faith, or rather brainwashing, that has prevented the North Korean people from questioning the utter bleakness their country has been spiraling into for the past few decades. While much of the rest of Asia has grown and prospered over the years, millions of North Koreans have perished from starvation during Kim Jong Il's rein.
North Korea's economic situation has been dire for a very long time. Kim's determination not to engage the world—but rather to be more and more isolated—has been hugely detrimental to the health and survival of the North Korean people. All of this is happening as Kim continues to pursue his nuclear ambitions. Billions of dollars have been spent on the development of nuclear weapons while the people in his country starve. Kim has convinced the North Koreans that the world is against them and that they must build up their weapons arsenal in order to defend themselves. This propaganda machine causes people to justify putting their hunger issues aside for the good of their nation's defense.
Over the years, thousands of North Koreans have escaped from the Communist country. Smuggling routes have been established along the border of North Korea and China—the place where my sister, Laura, and her colleague were arrested while working on a story to raise awareness about humanitarian crisis inside North Korea and along its border. My sister's voice was silenced, but the story still needs to be told.
These days, when North Koreans manage to escape, the situation can be tragic, particularly for the women. After risking their lives to escape, many of them arrive in China only to be preyed upon by people wanting to make money off of them. Many thousands of North Korean women have been forced into marriages with Chinese farmers, or they have been sold into the sex industry or labor. My heart bleeds for these people.
Those who escape one level of desperation very often find themselves in another devastating predicament once they reach Chinese soil. If they are discovered by Chinese authorities, they will be immediately sent back to North Korea, where they face execution or imprisonment in a North Korean gulag. The Chinese government does not recognize the children born of North Korean women and Chinese men. If their mothers are found and repatriated, these children can become homeless orphans with no rights and no identity. There is currently legislation in the U.S. Congress led by Sam Brownback (R-KA) in the Senate and Ed Royce (R-CA) and Diane Watson (D-CA) in the House that is pushing to allow "stateless" children who are eligible to be adopted into America. Here is a link to the actual bill: HR 4986, The North Korean Refugee Adoption Act of 2010.
Many people who have devoted their lives to helping people inside North Korea and those who've escaped from that country and are living in limbo in China and other countries. LiNK, or Liberty in North Korea, is one such organization that my family has been involved with for a long time. LiNK is on the front lines of trying to assist those who've managed to escape North Korea and helps them find refuge in other countries. LiNK is currently protecting refugees in their underground shelters in China and Southeast Asia, and their campaign, TheHundred, is helping refugees escape China through the underground network. When I watch this video of Ki-Won, I cannot help but think about my late father-in-law. Close in age and born in the same homeland, but such drastically different lives. Had he not been able to escape, my father-in-law would have likely faced a similar fate. Instead, he lived in freedom with his wife and two kids in America.
North Korean refugees are often severely traumatized after leaving lives of ultimate rigidity and suddenly finding themselves exposed to the disconcerting openness they experience once outside of North Korea. These are people who find themselves lost and easily victimized by traffickers and those who seek to exploit their vulnerabilities.
As North Korea's economy continues to plummet and the food situation worsens, the number of people trying to escape will increase. It will be the bravest but most dangerous thing these people will do. The risk they will undertake cannot be understated—stories of those repatriated after escaping are abundant and devastating. With the help of organizations like LiNK, North Korean escapees have a chance to live in freedom one day. Otherwise, these brave souls may be forever destined to live in the shadows with no rights and no identity.
My father-in-law Won Ryul Song never returned to Pyongyang during his lifetime and never wanted to. He said he didn't want to see what they [the North Korean regime] had done to his homeland. But he never gave up hope that his people both inside North Korea and living along the border will one day know freedom.