Life in North Korea sucks
As a donor to the L.A.-based nonprofit Liberty in North Korea (aptly abbreviated LINK due to their function as a bridge for NK refugees to the outside world), I read some depressing shit.
Pick up any book on the plight of the North Korean people, and I dare you to finish it. This is an entire nation held as prisoners within the borders of their own country. Unlike every other country in the world, you cannot simply be an emmigrant of North Korea. If you leave you are a defector, a criminal who, if repatriated, will face life in an NK prison with a concentration-camp-like standard of living. Even if you're never caught and sent back, your children and extended family will be imprisoned on your behalf.
"Maybe it's time to acknowledge the reality that those of us who went through hell have to relive it."
Baby mama drama
Usually the stories LINK puts out are inspiring. These are individual accounts that show human free will triumphing over a totalitarian government that tries to strip its citizens of even free thought.
Most recently they featured "Joy" and her difficult decision to abandon her two-year-old daughter and escape to freedom in South Korea. She had already made the miraculous move to China, where she was sold as a bride to a Chinese man. Yet because the Chinese government commits the sin of sending North Korean refugees back to North Korea and their abovementioned fates, Joy wasn't safe staying in China.
In a sense, the situation is framed as a rape. Joy said "I just did what the Chinese man wanted without thinking about birth-control—I never had proper sex education." Some feminist theorists have insisted that women's consent must be clear, even going so far as to suggest if the woman doesn't want it but stays quiet, that can still constitute rape. Joy certainly doesn't sound enthusiastic about sex with her arranged husband, and like "Mi-ran" in Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy, the North Korean government's censorship (they ban the Internet) left her not even knowing where babies came from.
Yet despite my passion for helping the NK people and my feminist ideals, I still found it tough to sympathize with her abandonment, even when I read her closing sentiment: "It is so ironic because I was so hurt a lot by my mom for leaving me and my family when I was a little kid and I did the same thing to my own daughter."
"What will happen to those 25 million North Koreans when the electric fences finally come down? Or, to empower them as LINK does, what will they make happen?"
It's the psychology, stupid.
The media keeps its crosshairs on North Korea's military threat, our selfish fear that its alleged nuclear weapons stockpile will threaten life as we know it. Nonprofits speak of its human rights abuses, the mass starvation and severe poverty. Yet stories like Joy's make me wonder of the psychological aspects of the NK crisis. LINK's bumper stickers assure us "The North Korean people will be free in our lifetime." (Granted they target millenials, but Obama came out as saying NK, a nation not even 70 years old, would inevitably collapse.) What will happen to those 25 million North Koreans when the electric fences finally come down? Or, to empower them as LINK does, what will they make happen? From a psychiatric standpoint, this is equivalent to an entire nation getting out of an abusive relationship at the same time. Aside from the culture shock and economic hardships they must adjust to, how will they learn to trust?
Joy, like all North Koreans, is both a victim and a product of a totalitarian dictatorship. She would not have had to make her difficult decision were she born in a free country. Yet she and her fellow citizens take their experience of government abuse with them. Modern research, which inspired my book In Your Shadow, shows how political traumas may be imprinted on our genes, passing mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia down through the generations. There is a link between child abuse and crime, and the NK black market is the only viable income stream to many North Koreans trapped inside a dead economy.
American diplomatic relations with North Korea and other nations are overly focused on the military component. The U.S. is similarly militant in how we treat those who didn't grow up as well as we did—in terms of both means as well as love and nurturing. The Syrian refugee crisis was handled poorly in many areas, and it's hard to tell how long we'll wait for a North Korean refugee influx, but maybe one way to prepare is to start at home, with how we treat those in our own nations now, both citizens and newcomers. Maybe it's time to acknowledge the reality that those of us who went through hell have to relive it. Time to not simply view mistakes as willful disobedience to authority, or even cruel revenge, but symptoms of a social disease, by those who don't know any better, or who have yet to know anything else.