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Lecture highlights struggles in North Korea

| Monday, April 13, 2015

Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a grassroots nonprofit that works to improve the lives of North Korean refugees, described the situation inside North Korea as one of the “greatest challenges facing humanity today” during a lecture at Carey Auditorium on Sunday.

LiNK representative Kirsten Pulles said in addition to refugee assistance, the nonprofit also hopes to change society’s idea of what is going on inside the country and how they can help.

“I’m sure for some of you, when I say North Korea, some of the first things that naturally pop into your head are scary weapons, scary dictators with even scarier haircuts, and movies [like The Interview that] you’re scared to watch with your family in the room,” Pulles said. “That’s what you see on the news, because that’s the story and that’s what makes a great story. But … I want to replace those first impressions with the North Korean people — the hope that they have for their future, and the changes that are already happening at the grassroots level.”

The United Nations published a report last year that found “the gravity, scale and nature of the human rights violations currently happening in North Korea reveal a state that is without parallel in our contemporary world.”

“[The report] went on to say that these crimes against humanity include ‘extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution based on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the forced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation,” she said.

Pulles said these conditions have contributed to a per capita income in North Korea that is 20 times lower than that of their neighbors. Because of this, North Korean citizens are trapped in an enforced state of poverty.

“This leaves an estimated one in four, or 28 percent of North Korean children, chronically malnourished,” she said.

But the situation inside North Korea may be starting to change, in part due to a much greater access to outside media and information, Pulles said. Outside media is often smuggled across the Chinese border, where it is sold on illegal markets. Outside information comes from North Korean refugees, who often send money and news to their families back home, Pulles said.

“In the mid-1990s, North Korea’s socialist economy collapsed, and this meant that among other basic needs, food rations from the government stopped being given to the people [of North Korea],” she said. “With their only source of food cut off, it’s estimated that up to one million North Korean people starved to death in the resulting famine.

“People knew that if they were going to survive, they would have to get creative and learn to work around the system that they used to depend on. They began engaging in illegal market activities, which led to a process led to marketization from below. These markets provided access not only to basic needs like food and clothing, but they also provided access to new sources of information and a new place to meet and discuss new ideas.”

This information cuts through propaganda that has successfully worked to subjugate North Koreans in the past, Pulles said.

“[The North Korean regime] used to tell the people that South Korea existed only in an oppressive poverty, abused by their American colonial occupiers. People were taught to feel sorry for the children who were supposedly starving in South Korea and to feel grateful to live in their so-called socialist paradise. This propaganda narrative was effective for many years. But new sources of information showing the reality of the outside world are beginning to seep inside the country. South Korean films, TV shows and dramas are shared secretly among friends and relatives. This is helping people see just how advanced South Korea and the rest of the outside world has become, while they were left behind.”

The new information also helps to build networks of trust between North Korean people, bringing them together, Pulles said.

“In the past, the regime has tried to foster distrust among the North Korean people, encouraging them to turn each other in or report each other,” she said. “And they also tried to prevent any groups from forming outside of their direct control and supervision. But now, since people are getting their information from friends and neighbors, and they’re gathering in secret to watch this information, it’s starting to build the very trust the regime has tried so hard to prevent in the past.”

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