The reality is that life is tough in North Korea in the best of times, however. International sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, a decaying economy and a defective food distribution system have left almost a third of its 24 million people poor and hungry and it has few friends besides its neighbor China.
From what alternative universe does this come? North Korea is poor, Rubin retorts, because “it’s a totalitarian state that holds its own citizens in contempt.” He continues:
International sanctions may target the North’s weapons program but, if sanctions were waived tomorrow, the only beneficiaries would be Kim Jong-un and the military. The food distribution system is not defective, just misaligned. After all, it was the regime and military that benefited when the Clinton administration shipped food aid to North Korea. The regime maintains the Songbun, a social classification system that marks North Koreans for life. A tiny few benefit; most are disposable.
This is my opportunity to recommend an amazing book about North Korea, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Hardin, a former Washington Post reporter, now with NPR. Don’t be put off by the NPR affiliation—this is a book you’ll never forget. It is about Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person ever born in a North Korean slave labor camp ever to escape.
It is also, as a Wall Street Journal review noted, a condemnation of the "barbaric" North Korean regime. Competition for scarce food in the camp was so intense that a child was beaten to death for having stolen five kernels of corn. Shin viewed his mother merely as a competitor for food. He had experienced no love from her and so, when he betrayed her for trying to escape–an act that resulted in the execution of his mother and brother, which he witnessed–Shin felt no remorse until he escaped and came to the West.
The work was backbreaking and people like Shin accepted that their lives would be brief and painful–and full of hunger. His escape came about almost as happenstance: he met another prisoner in solitary confinement—he was being punished—who had been a government official. Desperate to escape to China, a country of which Shin was ignorant, the older prisoner inspired Shin. When the time came, the older man, going first was electrocuted and Shin walked over his body to freedom.
The North Korea outside the camp was not as bad but it was backward and hungry. Because all the goodies go to the ruling family and their henchmen, poverty was endemic. The rulers, whom one would dismiss as nutty if they weren’t able to create untold suffering for their people, developed a theory based on bloodlines. Shin deserved to be a slave laborer because he had a bad bloodline–i.e., his father had been deemed insufficiently loyal to the regime. So many people in North Korea are so malnourished that they are mentally defective. Because of this, even if the country were able to shake off the regime, it would take generations to recover.
So this is the society that a Reuters correspondent thinks is groaning under the weight of economic sanctions. I am awarding the coveted Joan Juliet Buck Award to whoever wrote the Reuters story. The award traditionally goes to journalists who are willing to turn a blind eye to the evil acts of tyrants.