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Remember the North Koreans in Denuclearization Agreement
A flurry of diplomatic activity is playing out in advance of the on-again, off-again U.S.-North Korea summit. A top agenda item: denuclearization.
It is well-documented that North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un takes pride in his country’s 50-plus year nuclear program. However, a recent survey from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, discretely commissioned inside North Korea by Beyond Parallel, revealed not all in the country share his sentiments. Seventy percent of respondents said the nuclear program is not the source of their national pride. A mid-career North Korean soldier from a province bordering China said, “Nuclear weapons are the devil’s weapons and will lead to our extinction.”
This is not surprising. Simply put, Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear program is partially funded by sending North Koreans to places like China and Russia to perform slave labor in exchange for currency. This practice is even more abhorrent considering residents’ dire unmet needs. Forty-one percent of the population is undernourished, and 28 percent of children under five have stunted growth.
Slave labor and prison camps like Yodok are often top of mind when examining human rights abuses, while the treatment of “regular citizens” gets overlooked. George W. Bush Institute Fellow Victor Cha says public health in North Korea has not been properly managed and subsidized by the state. Briefly making headlines in late 2017, a North Korean soldier who defected was found to have parasitic worms up to 27 centimeters long and a chronic liver infection.
The inadequate state of the health system also puts the country at great risk of pandemics such as Ebola or SARS – a reality Cha refers to as a “ticking time-bomb.” North Korea’s only defense is to further shut itself off from the world. In 2014, it quarantined foreign visitors for 21 days, amid rampant fears of the Ebola virus spreading into the region.
Beyond the appalling state of health care, Cha also mentioned failings of the state-run economy. He said in the last 25 years, a vibrant market has emerged that now has largely supplanted the state in providing goods and services. A 2016 Beyond Parallel survey reveals rising dissatisfaction with the socialist system.
While survey respondents said they received sufficient goods from the public system in the 1990s; that is no longer the case. Seventy-two percent of participants now receive their household income from the unofficial market. Many voiced concerns of a failing system that does not deliver sufficient means for survival.
Although criticizing the regime is considered a serious crime, the study revealed 97 percent of respondents have family, friends, or neighbors who complain or make jokes about the government in private, potentially demonstrating North Koreans’ desire for change.
North Korea is one of the worst human rights abusers in modern history, and their practices extend beyond those in horrific prison and labor camps. While media outlets justifiably draw attention to North Korea’s nuclear weapons, they must also give a voice to the voiceless.
As the United States and the rest of the world grapple with denuclearizing the regime, world leaders must begin the conversation at the root of the issue, the country’s atrocious human rights abuses. Can we trust a state that abuses its people to respect international agreements?
Ioanna Papas is a Senior Manager, Editorial for the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
Before joining the Bush Institute Ioanna worked at Golin and strategically supported her client, Texas Instruments, in making a move from traditional public relations to content marketing with a focus on social media influencers. Prior to joining Golin, she provided support and expertise for a number of clients including Dish Network, UT Southwestern, Sabre Technologies, HOLT CAT, Hillwood and Benefitfocus. In these roles, she assisted in media relations, external campaign development and execution, and provided writing, editing and strategic implementation support.
Ioanna graduated from Texas Tech University with a degree in online journalism. After completing multiple internships, one resulting in an article published in the New York Times and winning the Investigative Reporters and Editors student award for investigative reporting, she pursued a journalism career in Beaumont, Texas.Full Bio
Q&A with North Korean escapee Peter Oh
Peter Oh is a 2019 North Korea Freedom Scholarship recipient who is pursuing his master’s degree in international policy and practice at George Washington University. He and his younger brother escaped North Korea in 2000 in search for food. He lived in China for three years before seeking asylum in South Korea with the help of Christian missionaries. He became a reporter for Radio Free Asia in Seoul and in 2010 was transferred to the Washington, D.C. office to report on North Korean issues.
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Q&A with North Korean escapee LK*
LK, a three-time North Korea Freedom Scholarship recipient, is an electrical and computer engineering student at a university in Illinois. A former member of the North Korean Army, LK remains anonymous to protect family members still living in North Korea.