Tuesday, August 4, 2009

North Korea

Reading about Bill Clinton's trip to Pyongyang last night gave me the first surge of hope for the fate of Euna Lee and Laura Ling. I can't believe the two journalists have been there since March 17th, and only now has the administration begun to do something. Maybe delicacy is required when you are dealing with a madman, as Kim Jong-il clearly is, but it sickens me to watch him have the leverage over and over again.

If only we can also do something for the people of North Korea, who are hostages in their own land. When I was in Korea in 1998 for a few months, I met several people who still had relatives in North Korea. Their families had been split during the Korean War. The principal of my language program had aunts and uncles who lived there. Due to the Sunshine Policy, the principal's father finally had a chance to meet with one of his sisters in China after almost half a century of separation.

To read up more about the fate of North Koreans, here are some memoirs I've read. It's very difficult to get accurate information about that country, and memoirs are probably the closest you'll ever come to the truth.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Chol-hwan Kang and Pierre Rigoulot - story of a man who was imprisoned in a North Korean labor camp when he was just nine years old.

Eyes of the Tailless Animals: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman
, by Soon Ok Lee - story of a woman who was an approved member of the Communist Party until she offended an official and was thrown in prison.

The Tears of My Soul, by Kim Hyun Hee - a woman who was trained to be a covert operator for North Korean and bombed Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987.

In North Korea: An American Travels Through an Imprisoned Nation
, by Nanchu and Xing Hang - gives you a good sense of the surreal state through the eyes of someone like us.

I also recently ordered Mike Kim's Escaping North Korea: Defiance and Hope in the World's Most Repressive Country, and I can't wait to read it.

To read a shorter account online, click here for the account of Shin Dong Hyuk, who was the first North Korean to escape from a North Korean labor camp.


  1. great list of books! i read aquariums of pyong yang at your mention and LOVED it. can't wait to read the other books

  2. You've heard the news, right? Link to KM post re: pardon from NK

    I'm so excited for them!

  3. Great news that they have been released - that's for sure!

    That said, I'd like to just point out that westerners who venture across the borders of "unfriendly" nations, including those in the "axis of evil", should take responsibility for their actions.

    Noone deserves to be detained or mistreated, that is obvious. But the truth is that the residents of these nations go through much much harsher treatment than any American or European who "innocently" breaks a few rules while there.

    Roxanna Saberi, an Iranian-American, is another point in example. I have no idea whether she actually did something unlawful while there (she is part Iranian, and was living there for a while when arrested), but I bet you anything she was not mistreated - let alone tortured - in the way that hundreds and thousands of detained political prisoners in Iran get treated every year.

    Yet another example is the one of the 3 students who apparently went over from Iraq through to the mountains to Iran. Did they have visas? Did they know that they had unlawfully crossed the borders of another sovereign nation? ** What does the U.S. do with foreigners who cross its borders unlawfully?**

    Again, I am very happy that the two Americans can get reunited with their families. They are the lucky ones. Nonetheless, each one of us has to take responsibility for our own actions. I am sure there are millions of people across the world who would do anything to get bailed out of misery by Bill Clinton!

  4. Hi, Anonymous at 7:25,

    Thanks for your comment. I think it's important to point out that we don't know exactly what happened. We have a version put forth by the North Koreans (and their so called tribunal) and we know what the women said in order to appease the North Korean government in order to obtain the "pardon." But I don't put it past the North Korean government to concoct a story to take two Americans as pawns (particularly given their history of kidnapping).

    And I do admire journalists and other activists who take a risk to help those who live in oppressed regimes, whether it's by reporting about what's going on behind the borders or by helping the citizens escape, as Mike Kim did. I'm not talking about buffoons who do it for attention. I'm talking about people with serious motives and those who act on them. I like to think these two journalists fall into the latter category.

  5. Really well-said, Shinyung!

  6. Shinyung -

    In your response to 7:25 pm, you said -

    "I'm not talking about buffoons who do it for attention. I'm talking about people with serious motives and those who act on them." THAT is the key. And we'll have to see what category they fall into - serious journalists, or otherwise.

  7. Hi, Anonymous at 2:10,

    I couldn't agree with you more!

  8. Hi Shinyung -

    This is Anonymous@ 7:25 & 2:10. To be clear, I am the same poster.

    Perhaps I wasn't clear with my comment yesterday. Yes, I think if these women are thoughtful/serious journalists, who are covering human rights issues, then they are heroes (and I never ever use that word lightly). We need people who take great risks to uncover what totalitarian governments want us to forget or never see.

    BUT if people foolishly cross boundaries - whatever their motives may be- and think that they will get softer treatment than other, non-Westerners, then they need to fully understand the risks that they are taking. (Not that being sent to a labor camp is just punishment, but it is a REALITY in some parts of the world.)

    Yes, we need more brave journalists and citizen-journalists to cover uprisings, etc. in parts of the world where people have no voice. No voice whatsoever. Case in point: recent events in Iran in June, 2009.

    Hope this one was more clear. And yes, let's see what these two individuals have to say.

  9. Hi, Anonymous,

    Thanks for your clarification, and I agree with your statement. I think it would be foolish for anyone to expect leniency just because they're Americans or Westerners. Thanks for chiming in!