The last few weeks, my reading pile has included a variety of books whose focus is North Korea.

These were not easy books to read, in fact it was dammed dis-heartening. I read about a country suffering through near poverty while its leader lives the good life.

Well, when he is not having his mistress shot because his wife found out about the affair. Granted I have only hearsay for that one. But it is pretty certain that his uncle is dead after some of his bolder acts came to be known. The man disappeared and no one has seen him. It is assumed that he is dead – somewhere. If one story is true, it was a very public and nasty death.

esape from camp 14This does not surprise me. Especially after I finished reading Escape from Camp 14. This non-fiction book, which is currently up for the Lincoln Award, tells the story of a young man , named Shin, who was born in Camp 14, a brutal gulag meant for those who went against the government in some way. If that isn’t enough, the government gathers your family, have people ‘mate’ or marry so that they can punish your children.

It is the whole idea of punishing three generations of wrongdoers. People within the camp are taught to snitch on each other, to always work alone, and to never trust one another. God forbid if you try to escape and fail. Chances are you will shot or hung in front of a crowd so your mistakes are an example to everyone else.

Recently it has come out that Shin changed facts around such as his mother, brother, and himself were transferred to a different camp, and that one escape attempt led him to being repatriated to North Korea.

Reluctant CommunistIt could lead you to discount the whole story until you read The Reluctant Communist by Charles Robert Jenkins and Jim Frederick. Jenkins was stationed in South Korea during the 1960s. While this was his second stint in South Korea, it was one filled with depression and loneliness. After eight years in the service, the Sargent wanted to go home and not be sent to Vietnam. That is when he deserted the Army and walked over the border to North Korea. Jenkins thought he would be sent home to face a court martial.

Instead he lived 40 years in a country that was brutal in its rations of food and money. He knows he had it better than most of the citizens but he dealt with irregular heating, electric service, and food sources. He was lucky to meet a Japanese woman and to have a true love match. Other American captives were ‘given’ women or eventually given a woman for a wife.

Because the Japanese government came looking for their abducted citizen, Jenkins’ wife Hitomi, was allowed to go back home. It would take nearly two years of effort on the part of the Japanese government  to get Jenkins and his two daughters into Indonesia to re-unite the family.

I raced through this book but would read various passages again so that I could truly understand what happened to Charles and Hitomi.

Without You There is no UsThe book that started me on this journey is the memoir by Suki Kim, Without You, There is No Us. It details the time Kim spent as a teacher at a university in Pyongyang, teaching English to children of the Korean elite. But even here, life is not privileged. Food seldom tastes good, even if there is meat. The electric service is spotty. Everyone’s computer is bugged so officials know what you are looking up at all times which was a huge fear when one of the other teachers stated they googled each of their co-workers.

Private conversations can only be had if you walk outside in the compound. And there is no such thing as a private conversation with students. You never know who is an informant and who is a rebel.

Kim tried to subtly introduce Western ideas but came to realize that she was only putting her students, whom she grew to love, in danger. Field trips for the teachers pointed out the abject poverty of the people. With her students not even allowed visits from their parents until school break times, Kim wondered about the life that her students lead outside of the university, if they had any freedom or were able to see other students like themselves.

You might say “That Shin guy lied, couldn’t these others be lying, too?” The problem is that there are too many stories from too many defectors. Why would thousands of people lie so grandly if this country was better than what it appears to be?

Then this week I heard about the Wired magazine article that talks with a man who smuggles thumb drives filled with American TV shows into North Korea. These are easier to hide than DVDs, easier to move around.  In doing this, the smugglers hope to show North Koreans that Americans do not focus on how to destroy their tiny country at all hours of the day.

Once upon a time, about 70 years ago, we said never again to things like the Holocaust and genocide. But with examples from North Korea and ISIS and Darfur and the break up of Yugoslavia, I wonder if that is ever possible. The only thing I do know is that we must keep working against the evil that deems we must obey or die.

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