"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.