For decades now, reports have slowly leaked out of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea, of rampant governmental abuses and an oppressive governmental regime run under the leadership of Kim Jong-Il. Finally, in 2013 a UN committee was tasked with an in-depth investigation of allegations made by more than 300 escaped citizens and refugees. In early 2014, that report was released and detailed more than 400 pages worth of abuses and outright horrific human rights violations.
Among the allegations were claims of enforced starvation, rape, torture, forced abortion and even infanticide committed in the state’s numerous government run hard labor camps, not to mention the severe civil rights violations of its general citizenry. Punishments for even minor infractions ranged from short to long term incarceration in the labor camps to outright execution, often without any form of trial or civil procedure of any kind.
Witnesses testified to having their hands cuffed behind them and then being hung on a wall for days on end, unable to sit or stand. Left to urinate and defecate on themselves, they testified to being in such severe agony that they would rather die than go on living. One witness testified to seeing a guard beat a starving woman who had recently given birth and then force her to drown her own newborn baby. Another woman claims on Independent.co.uk to have been imprisoned for watching soap operas; a claim that might seem ludicrous under other circumstances, but unfortunately lines up all too well with the claims of more than 300 other witnesses.
One such witness to the despotic conditions endured by North Koreans, is 21 year-old Yeonmi Park. Born in Hyesan, North Korea to parents who were mid-level civil servants in Jong-Il’s government, her early life was one of relative privilege until the long term effects of his dictatorial methods began to set in. By the late 90’s her parents had resorted to smuggling goods into China as a means to support their family. In 2002, Yeon-mi’s father was sent to one of the labor camps detailed in the UN report. She saw the violations first hand, as she watched his health rapidly decline.
They decided that if they were to survive, they had to leave North Korea. They made their way into China, but their troubles were still far from over. The Chinese government regularly acted in complicity with the North Korean government to hunt down defectors and send them back across the border. Yeon-mi and her mother managed to elude Chinese authorities, but they still faced far greater horrors and atrocities in the year and several months it took them to make their way into Mongolia to freedom.
Now living in Seoul, South Korea, Yeon-mi is determined to never let the world forget the plight of her country. As an avid speaker and guest on a number of radio and television programs, she gave a moving speech at the One Young World Summit in Dublin, Ireland in 2014 that went viral and gained her a whole new global audience sympathetic to her cause.