14 Oct 2013

Why the official version of North Korean life is a carefully constructed lie

Defectors’ tales of food shortages and fear expose the official story of life in North Korea – handed out to the few journalists allowed to enter the country – as a carefully constructed lie.

As cities go, Pyongyang is like a boisterous extrovert – an in-your-face showcase full of golden statues and giant portraits and lofty granite pillars. The super-sized urban furniture has been built in honour of the country’s long-time rulers, the Kim family, and it is certainly meant to impress. But the people who run North Korea are careful about who let in to see it.

Nevertheless, we found ourselves in this reclusive capital at the end of July, along with a small group of international journalists, our invitations coinciding with a series of events marking the end of the Korean war. It wasn’t a regular journalistic enterprise. My cameraman, Matt Jasper, and I were accommodated on an island in the middle of Pyongyang’s Taedong river, and when we were bussed into the city, our state-supplied “tour guides” (from the North Korean intelligence agency) were never far away.

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Like most first-time visitors, we came equipped with curiosity and plenty of questions. Naively, perhaps, I wondered whether I would manage to break through the obedient crust of those who inhabit this city. There were, unfortunately, few moments of real revelation, and our “guides” worked hard to keep it that way. “Report on what you see,” they kept reminding us.

For the questioning eye there were inconsistencies to be found. North Koreans are told that their current leader, the twenty-something Kim Jong-un, descended from heaven to rule over them. Yet the head of the country’s Workers’ Party looked pretty human to us, with dandruff on his jacket and a stretch Mercedes parked around the back. He was accompanied by cheering crowds whereever he went – but the sound was pre-recorded and pumped out full-blast from multiple speakers.

It was a bit like watching a television ad for cigarettes: a slick and carefully constructed lie. The “real North Korea” was not on view – a nation of chronic food shortages and illegal markets and homelessness and enormous political gulags, unavailable on our stage-managed voyage.

There was a solution, however. Over the last couple of weeks, an international group of investigators has been learning about a very different sort of North Korea.

Earlier this year, the United Nations Human Rights Council established a special “commission of inquiry” into human rights abuses in North Korea – its creation greatly aided by the fact North Korea’s traditional allies – namely China, Russia and Cuba – had rotated off the UN body at the time of the commission’s founding.

Public hearings began in September and, importantly, investigators have been tramping the back-streets of the South Korean capital, Seoul, privately interviewing a hundred or so defectors about their experiences. Additional hearings have been held in Tokyo and Bangkok, and next week the commission will commence proceedings in London.

Unsurprisingly, the regime has refused to cooperate and branded all those participating in the process as “human scum”. The chairman of the commission, Michael Kirby, was unfazed however – he told reporters in Tokyo that he was “shocked” by what he had heard, comparing conditions in North Korean penal colonies with Nazi concentration camps in world war II.

Channel 4 News interviewed three defectors who gave evidence to the commission – both privately and publicly. You can hear more about their thoughts and experiences in our exclusive report tonight. Here are a few examples.

Recent escapee Kim Kwang Ho (not his real name) told us he was a senior member of the regime, an administrator in the “central governing organ” based in Pyongyang. He described a city awash with fear. “Ordinary citizens in Pyongyang are constantly afraid of being removed from the city. They can never relax – not ever. That’s the way it is in the capital,” said Mr Kim.

City residents are desperate to stay, he said, because they are guaranteed a daily ration of rice. In return, though, they have to demonstrate total devotion to the regime. For your typical worker, that means additional tasks like painting, road sweeping, installing new street lights, and cutting the grass (with scissors) or weeding (with tweezers). For the ruling class, that means going about your business in a state of high anxiety. According to Mr Kim, “even high-ranking members of the party and the National Security (Intelligence) Agency live like this. They fear they could be executed any day because they have seen their colleagues taken away or killed, together with their entire families.”

Life outside city limits is probably tougher, however. A recent defector who called herself Hanna said she and hundreds of others used to search for scraps of food at markets in and around the northern city of Chongjin. The markets are illegal – but they are tolerated by the regime because the official food distribution system has collapsed. Hanna’s story was one of unspeakable hardship: “There are people of all ages searching for food – from age five to 70. We used sticks to dig around – then moved on to the next market. When I looked behind me, I’d see another group of people looking in the same spot where I’d been.”

North Korea suffers from persistent food shortages – and this year is no exception, with the United Nations estimating that almost a third of all children are severely malnourished. It is a desperate situation, made worse, say some, by the international community. Countries like the US have been reluctant to provide emergency assistance, this programme has learnt, after the regime issued a series of bellicose threats in April.

For those on the ground, trying to provide basic levels of nutrition to vulnerable groups, this hard-line approach breaches basic humanitarian principles. Here’s an extract from a conversation I had with the chief of the United Nations in North Korea, Ghulam Isaczai:

Ghulam Isaczai: If you look at the crisis in April, it poisons the atmosphere for engagement. North Korea almost has a red flag on it. I’m not saying that donors are intentionally using humanitarian aid as a bargaining tool but …

John Sparks: But they are…

Ghulam Isaczai: But they are influenced by this …

John Sparks: Are you frustrated?

Ghulam Isaczai: We are frustrated because we see our staff on the ground doing hard work. They see dying children, stunted children….

Primarily responsibility for the people of North Korea rests with those who govern them, however – and the ruling elite, led by the boyish Kim Jong-un, rule badly, despite the monuments they’ve erected to their own magnificence. Those people brave enough to criticise them (and they do exist – watch our report on Tuesday night) risk execution or a lifetime, along with their families, in a brutal political prison camp.

Yet the truth cannot be contained within North Korea’s borders, despite a massive crackdown currently underway against those determined to flee. Civil rights groups in Seoul say the numbers of defectors have been cut by 50 per cent over the last two years, but these desperate human beings will continue to find a way out. They come, of course, with stories and their memories of life on the inside – the sort of material now being collected and categorized by United Nations investigators – and their recollections now have the power to change the way we all think about North Korea.

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