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Running from the regime

"Running from the regime" Continued...

After her release, a broker helped Park return to China. Once there, she decided to take her son, then 5, and seek freedom in South Korea. They traveled to the border of Mongolia, a popular crossing point for North Korean migrants. 

At the border, Park and her son fell behind the small group she was traveling with. But a man she’d never met risked his life by crossing over the Chinese border to help them. He hoisted the boy on his back, grabbed Park’s hand, and ran with them into Mongolia. Later, Park married him.—Daniel James Devine

Starving soldiers

Former North Korean military captain Kim Joo Il, 41, used to work near the Demilitarized Zone, the area bordering South Korea. Serving the military didn’t spare soldiers from the politically induced famine that ravaged the nation during the 1990s and killed between 600,000 and 1 million people. Kim saw a dozen soldiers or military colleagues die each month of starvation or related diseases.

During the rule of Kim Jong Il, father of current dictator Kim Jong Un, soldiers’ daily ration was about 3 cups of rice. Once cooked, it contained only 700 calories—as much as a Whopper with cheese. That was twice the amount average citizens received. In 2012, the military dropped the minimum height requirements for 18-year-old recruits to 4 feet 7 inches, due to the nation’s widespread stunted growth produced by malnourishment.

As an officer, Kim turned a blind eye to starving soldiers who looted homes or towns for food. “Their only goal was to survive and they knew that unless they stole food they would die,” he recalled.

Instead of good food, the government fed recruits a regular diet of anti-Western propaganda. Soldiers sat through two-hour sessions each day extolling the virtues of the Kim regime. Near the border, when candy floated over from South Korea on balloons, superior officers would warn them the candy was poisoned. Smart soldiers tested the claim by setting the candy near an ant nest: If the ants lived, they knew they could safely eat the treat in secret.

During a trip to round up deserters, Kim realized he was disillusioned with North Korean military life, and decided to leave. He escaped to China and eventually traveled to the United Kingdom, where he leads the North Korean Residents Society in Europe. He also founded the pro-democracy news source Free NK.

Kim believes the North Korean people might change if they heard accurate news of the outside world: “Just as [people] cannot undo the sunlight by putting their hand out over their eyes, I think that truth cannot be denied. And someday I believe that North Koreans will be able to find their human rights.”—Daniel James Devine

Reporting lies

Jeong Jin Hwa’s testimony unearths interesting insight into the way media operates in North Korea. 

In her testimony before a UN commission, Jeong described a typical day in the life of a North Korean “reporter”: Each day, Jeong’s boss would assign her articles and documents from the Labor Party to read aloud to the public. Before she went on air, she practiced reading her script out loud until she got the tone and content down perfectly. Then she read the material exactly, word for word. Making a mistake or branching off from the assigned material was a political offense that could lead to execution. Because of their public influence, reporters and broadcasters faced harsher punishment for their mistakes, Jeong said, telling commissioners, “If they slip just once, they can disappear overnight, their family can be gone overnight, and sometimes, three generations are wiped off.”

North Korean TV has programs other than news and announcements, but even music and drama offerings include propaganda themes. Satire, debate, and commentary don’t exist. Freedom of the press? No such thing in North Korea, where the regime wields the media like a puppeteer. “The underlying message is about the power of the regime, the underlying idea is the ideology of the party, the purpose of the message is to get the message across to the people,” Jeong said. 

People make fun of the melodramatic, sing-songy tones North Korean TV anchors use, but there’s a reason why they talk like that: it’s mandated protocol. When broadcasters utter the names of Kim leaders, they raise their voice “one tone higher and one rhythm slower,” as if the very utterance deserves reverent awe. But when the announcers mention their enemies—namely, the United States and South Korea—they have to “put in the most hatred, the most hostility” they can muster into their words and insert emotional modifiers to convey the animosity expected from the audience. 


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