American self-interest blinds us to truth in North Korea

By Elizabeth Walker
Distribution Manager
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Very few areas of our world remain uncharted. With globalization and the spread of the internet, we can access information about any country, any region, any city at the click of an article. But the biggest mystery, and the one we fear the most, lies to the east: the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.
Following nuclear warhead tests conducted by North Korea near Japan and American owned territories, tensions between the two governments have increased to a new level with the risk of nuclear war building into even more of a possibility. As days pass, American citizens frantically check their phones, with many fearful of what will play out.
“Like most people, I am scared to death that there will be a nuclear war,” said Mark Gibney, the Carol G. Belk distinguished professor of humanities at UNC Asheville.
Gibney said the development of missile capabilities to deliver nuclear weapons makes the situation even worse, along with Trump and his comments. However, there are other issues at stake.
“There really is not much of a human rights movement in North Korea and if there is, it will be squashed by a nationalism and support for the Kim regime,” Gibney said.
While the North Korean constitution allows for free speech, a report conducted by the United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor stated the government prohibits the exercise of these rights. Many citizens are arrested or interrogated for saying anything negative about their government, while the government controls virtually every format of media.
According to a 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry report on human rights in North Korea, the government runs on a system of propaganda taught to citizens from birth built upon the idea of boosting devotion to the government. Because of this system of censorship and propaganda, the people cannot possibly voice their own opinions without fear of retaliation against them or their families, often in the form of torture, jail or death.
The irony within the full name of the country also rings false. A country containing the word ‘democratic’ within its title makes a mockery of human rights when it routinely pops up under reports conducted by the U.N. and other groups as one of the worst countries in the world.
The organization Human Rights Watch reported North Korea lists abuses such as extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence within its repertoire of horrors. Secretive prison camps exist for those who oppose the government where prisoners encounter torture, forced labor and starvation.
These acts only begin to establish a list we cannot possibly know the length of since outsiders are not allowed full access to the country. Prior to the inquiry report, U.N. officials asked for full access to the country to shed truth on the matters investigated. Access was denied. The government does not care what the outside world thinks as it continues to inflict terror on its citizens with little to no repercussions.
Granted, the threat of nuclear war should be taken seriously. Tensions remain high with Trump not helping matters with his malicious comments directed toward Kim Jong-un. In the past few days, multiple news sources such as NPR and The New York Times reported the North Korean government believes his comments are a direct declaration of war.
However, there may be a solution in not only addressing the corrupt nature of the government, but in helping its people. Only through freeing the many citizens trapped by an oppressive regime can we hope to end the threat to both our country, North Korea and the countries surrounding it.
But so little information circulates throughout the rest of the world on the state of North Korea, unless discussing the nuclear tensions at hand.
“We do not see much nor do you read about North Korea that much, which does make it hard to work up a PR campaign on behalf of human rights in North Korea,” Gibney said.
Arguably, we cannot begin to understand a people if their opinions simply do not exist within the outside world. While we know a good bit about Kim Jong-un and the regime, we know next to nothing about the civilians and their experiences, except for the few published accounts of those who escaped their home country’s totalitarian regime.
With new laws blocking refugees from entering the United States and banning Americans from entering North Korea, even these stories will become harder and harder to publish in the free world.
Gibney said it remains a challenge when so many factors lay at the center of the North Korean situation.
“The difficulty, I believe, is that it is hard to know where to start,” Gibney said. “On the other hand, I remember when Albania was viewed very much like North Korea is today —  as a basket case that would never emerge from a barbaric state —  and now Albania is no longer in the Dark Ages.”
While this example provides hope, many still wonder if this situation can get better at this point. With only so much time before the crisis boils over further, we must wonder if we will be a nation only worried about ourselves, or if we will fight for the many other lives at stake in this escalation —  North Korean included.