Steps That Outside Governments Can Take Toward Ending the Human Rights Violations of North Korea

Kim Jong-Un, the Supreme Leader of North Korea shakes hands with Xi Jinping, the President of China.
Xi Jinping puts diplomatic relations with North Korea above the safety and well-being of refugees. Source: Yahoo!

Note from the author: This post is the fourth of my four-part series on the North Korean Regime. I recommend reading the other parts before this one for understanding, but doing so is optional. To find the other parts, scroll down and click on “View all posts by A. Price.” 

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) consistently acts like a toddler in its negotiations and diplomatic relations with other countries. They consistently refuse food and humanitarian aid that their citizens desperately need for petty political reasons. The World Food Program (WFP) was denied access to North Korea in 2005 because its monitoring process was too intrusive for North Korea’s standards. Because of this type of behavior, it is apparent that the DPRK wishes to mishandle food aid and allow their rural citizens to starve and die before accepting the WFP’s guidelines. 

Food and Humanitarian Aid

The Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK; the regime) insists on inserting itself into food aid distribution and consistently passes policies that would manipulate citizens into subservience to the regime. One such policy would make the receipt of food aid contingent on reporting to one’s government-sanctioned job. This effectively stifles any chance at economic mobility for poor and rural people. Such a policy is against the conditions of the World Food Program, but instead of complying with the WFP to receive the aid, they let their citizens starve. The WFP has a humanitarian interest in feeding these people, so they are left at a crossroads: supply food aid according to North Korea’s standards or allow North Korea to starve its rural citizens. 

Seven children stand in a field waving at the camera. Behind them, there are rolling hills with crop lines and a cow.
Rural children take the hardest hit when the DPRK rejects food and humanitarian aid. Source: Yahoo!

Because of the WPK’s toddler-like nature, it is imperative that food and humanitarian aid are not contingent on the government’s cooperation. Historically, the US has made food aid contingent on the dismantling of specified nuclear programs. This leaves the WPK with the choice: give up our nuclear program or let our citizens starve. For them, this is a no-brainer. The WPK cares much more about politics and big blow-up things than the starvation and suffering of its citizens. This is why it is increasingly important that food and humanitarian aid are not contingent on the cooperation of the government. 

China

Because of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, China is the only country directly bordering North Korea. This means that China has the highest amount of undocumented North Korean refugees. China is compliant with the North Korean regime’s disgusting agenda. Instead of complying with the United Nations (UN) guidelines for refugees, China heavily polices bordering towns and consistently returns refugees to the abusive DPRK. Because of this, refugees must travel all the way through China to another country before being able to fly to a safe place such as South Korea where they can seek asylum. 

A colorful festival takes place with dancers and streamers. On a pedestal, four people stand holding the flags of North Korea and China.
China supports the North Korean regime. Source: Yahoo!

Because of the threat of being deported back to North Korea and subsequently thrown into a prison camp, many refugees, specifically those assigned ‘female’ at birth (AFAB), fall victim to human trafficking. Because of the One-Child policy and selective abortions, China now has a disproportionate level of people in male bodies as opposed to those in female bodies. This incongruence means that many men cannot find or afford brides and many North Korean AFAB people are sold as brides to poor Chinese men. The people in these situations rarely feel safe in their new homes and often fall victim to abuse, blackmail, and rape.

The UN must step into China to enforce its guidelines for refugees. China must become a safe place for North Korean refugees to seek asylum. Until then, these people will continuously fall victim to deportation and human trafficking.

International Participation

The DPRK is a participant of the UN. The UN has treaties and guidelines surrounding the topic of human rights, but they are not enforced. The DPRK has signed seven different human rights treaties including the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). As you have seen throughout this series, these treaties are not enforced by the United Nations or any other organization interested in human rights. 

As a participant of the UN, the US should apply pressure for the enforcement of the UN’s treaties and policies. North Korea consistently fails in its Responsibility to Protect (R2P) its citizens, calling for international actors to step in and protect these citizens. The WPK has proven that it does not care about these people and will not let go of its power without a fight. North Korea’s citizens will continue to be treated terribly as the collective group of outside countries chooses not to intervene, constituting one of the most significant and worst human rights situations in recent history.

How You Can Help

Four refugees wearing backpacks walk through a field to safety.
Refugees rescued by Liberty in North Korea follow a 3,000-mile secret escape route that includes walking paths, buses, and trains. Source: Yahoo!

North Korea is one of my special interests. I could write about this topic for the rest of my life. I encourage you to look into this issue (resources linked below) and spark your own interest in the North Korean human rights situation. I encourage you to consider, if you can, donating to an organization that I really believe in. They are called Liberty in North Korea. They are working on the ground to help North Koreans escape the regime through a 3,000-mile secret escape route. Their website includes many resources and even a blog written by people personally affected by the North Korean regime. 

Below I have linked some resources for you to explore at your leisure.

Liberty in North Korea

Crossing Borders  

UN General Assembly on the Situation of Human Rights in the DPRK 

Policy Recommendations – The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

Brookings article on the Biden administration and the DPRK  

World Report 2021: North Korea | Human Rights Watch 

World Report 2022: North Korea | Human Rights Watch 

CRS Report – Foreign Assistance to North Korea 

 

Control by Threat of Force: The Abuses of the Criminal System of North Korea

A person sits in the corner of a small, dirty cell with nothing but a mattress and a small bowl. They are sitting in a ball with their arms around their legs and their head down.
Most prison cells are smaller than this one. Source: Yahoo! Images

Note from the author: This post is the third of my four-part series on the North Korean Regime. I recommend reading the first two parts before this one, but it is not required to understand this part. To find the other parts, scroll down and click on “View all posts by A. Price.” If the last part is not available yet, be sure to check back in during the upcoming weeks when it will be posted.

Content Warnings: torture, malnutrition, imprisonment, death, suicide, rape

As you are reading this, there are children in labor camps who have no idea that a world exists beyond their barbed wire. They believe that the entire world is confined within the fences that hold them. They have never heard of countries, the regime that holds them there, or the existence of people who look different from them. They were born to enslaved, imprisoned parents and taken from them before they could even wean off breast milk. They have never felt as though they’ve had enough to eat. They have lived in a constant state of overwork and malnutrition for their entire lives. They don’t know about the Kim Dynasty or the regime. All they know is that the guards who hold them there are above them. They hold all the power in the world in their batons and rifles. The lingering threat of death holds their minds captive, reducing them to survivalists, doing anything they can to stay alive. They catch mice, rats, and moles to eat. They avoid confrontation with the guards and hide their pain so as to not disappoint the powerful guards with their lives in their hands. 

There has only ever been one known escapee from these horrifying “Special Total-Control Zones” where children born to prisoners are held for their entire lives. Shin Dong-Hyuk had no idea that a world existed where food was sufficient until one of his friends told him about Kim Jong-Il and the world beyond the prison camp. When the guards left them alone outside for a split second, he and his friend decided to make their break. His friend fell unconscious due to the high voltage barbed wire fence, and Shin used his friend’s body to climb out and run away. He never saw his friend again, and his deepest regret is not going back to rescue him. Hear him tell his story here.

A man with glasses and a blue shirt speaks into a microphone. Behind him are signs, one reading, “Shout for Freedom.”
Shin Dong-Hyuk. Source: Yahoo! Images

Status of Legal Code

The Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK) intentionally writes laws in abstract, vague language. The laws are never communicated to the general public who are supposed to be following them. This gives the regime complete and total power over the criminality of these citizens. If a person of a high Songbun (class) wants a person of a lower Songbun to be arrested for any reason, they will simply interpret the law to mean whatever they want it to mean and have that person arrested. Common offenses include “conspiracy to subvert the State”, “treason against the Fatherland”, and “illegal trade.”

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

When a person is accused of having broken a law, they are immediately detained by police. Rarely are they told the reason for their arrest or the rights that they have. They are brought to a jail where they are not told the amount of time until their trial. The only form of bail is the informal bribery of the guards. Only a lucky few with resources and connections are able to leave the station at this point in the process. 

When their trial date comes along, they have no say in the outcome. If they do not prove themselves to be innocent beyond a reasonable doubt, then they are assumed to be guilty and sentenced at the judges’ discretion. For most of them, their only hope is that a family member has bribed the judge in their favor. In most cases, this bribe costs their family everything that they have, ruining their lives and pushing them deeper into poverty. 

A person sits in a witness booth in front of at least four judges. There is an armed guard standing behind him, and a North Korean flag hanging on the wall behind the judges.
Free and fair trials are non-existent in the DPRK. Source: Yahoo! Images

Forced Labor as Punishment

The main form of punishment used by North Korea is imprisonment in forced labor camps. They believe forced labor to be a form of repatriation in that when a person works for their country, they will grow an appreciation for it and be less likely to commit a crime against it. That, of course, is just what they tell people. The WPK knows that the purpose of these prison camps is to exploit the slave labor of people deemed “undesirable” and to feed the ego of the state. They know that the people in these prison camps are being tortured. I truly believe that if the WPK could do anything to possibly make the lives of these people worse, they would do it without question. The WPK is the embodiment of evil, and being in a labor camp controlled by them is completely and unfeasibly miserable.

Human Rights in Prison Camps

This section, in particular, will detail some of the torture endured by prisoners. If learning of this torture will be of particular detriment to your mental health, I recommend ending here and reading any of the other articles on this site that may be easier for you to stomach. 

When in a North Korean labor camp, guards have full and complete discretion over the lives of the prisoners. Guards in this situation grow increasingly sadistic as they continue their jobs and commit heinous acts in the name of their regime, justifying it by dehumanizing the people under their control. Most people, especially those with female anatomy, do not leave these camps without being the victim of rape, most of the time on multiple accounts. All people lose copious amounts of weight during their stay due to malnutrition. If a guard wants you to eat dirt, you eat dirt. If they want you to grab the high-voltage fence, you grab the high-voltage fence. There is no limit to the power that the guards have over you. 

Prisoners are randomly and sporadically accused of withholding information from the guards. They are then subject to intense interrogation techniques. When Shin Dong-Hyuk was young, his mother and brother were accused of trying to escape. He was suspected to have information about this plan. As a result, he was subject to torturous interrogation. He lost the tip of his right middle finger, his face was sliced open with a weapon, and he was hung over a fire by his hands and feet. He still bears the scars from this torture. When he inevitably had no information to give the guards, he was forced to watch his mother and brother be hanged and shot in a public execution. 

Trigger Warning: the next image is a depiction of torture.

Trigger Warning. A black and white line drawing shows a very young Shin Dong-Hyuk being hung from the ceiling by a rope around his hands and a chain around his feet. He is being lowered into the flames of a fire and hit with a stick. There are three guards watching, unphased, and a row of torture equipment hanging on the wall behind them.
A drawing of the torture endured by Shin Dong-Hyuk after being wrongfully accused of withholding information. Source: Yahoo! Images

There is no happy note on which to end this article. The lives of incarcerated people in North Korea are miserable. They are subject to the worst human rights violations worldwide. I encourage you to take a moment for your mental health after reading this article so that together we can put an end to this inhumane treatment. Be sure to read my next article, the fourth part of this series, titled, “Steps That Outside Governments Can Take Toward Ending the Human Rights Violations of North Korea.” 

How the North Korean Regime Uses Cult-Like Tactics to Maintain Power

Kim Jong-Un stands on a high ledge waving to thousands of people standing uniformly down below. He is wearing a black suit. Everyone in the crowd is wearing red, and there is a group of people in the distance wearing white to spell something out among the red. It is not clear what they are positioned to spell out.
Kim Jong-Un carries on his grandfather’s charismatic image. Source: Yahoo! Images

Note from the author: This post is the second of my four-part series on the North Korean Regime. I recommend reading part one before this, but it is not required to understand this part. To find the other parts, scroll down and click “View all posts by A. Price.” If the other parts are not available yet, check back in during the upcoming weeks when they will be posted.

Content Warnings: cults, mass manipulation, death by suicide, honor killings, abusive governments

Charles Manson of the Manson Family convinced his followers to murder nine people who criticized him. Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate convinced thirty-nine members to commit suicide in hopes of leaving their bodily “containers” and ascending into a spaceship hidden behind the Hale-Bopp Comet. Jim Jones of Jonestown convinced nine hundred and nine people to drink poisoned kool-aid in a mass suicide mission. What quality unites all these people and gives them the ability to hold such great power over their captive audience? The answer, of course, is charisma. When a charismatic person with a hunger for power learns how to manipulate a group of people, there is no limit to the amount of power that they have access to.

A group of masked people in black robes stand in a circle, with four masked people of different colored robes in the center, as if performing a ritual.
Not all cults look like robed people standing in a circle performing a satanic ritual. Some cults blend into the international order and fly just below the radar. Source: Yahoo! Images

My specialty in human rights research is in religion and cults. I have been studying religion and cults informally for many years, and formally since my start at UAB. While reading Sandra Fahy’s book, Dying for Rights (cited in Part 1 of this series), many red flags stood out to me. Every new thing I learned added evidence to my theory that North Korea would qualify as a cult under pretty much every model of qualification widely accepted by professional researchers of religion and cults. Below, I break down North Korea’s regime and classify it as a cult based on three main criteria:

First and foremost, the group must have an all-encompassing leader who has convinced the group that they are perfect and can do no wrong. This person could be a real person or a theoretical, such as a god or deity. Second, there must be an in-group vs. out-group system of understanding. Members of the group believe that they are fundamentally different, usually fundamentally better in some way than non-members of the group. Third, the leader must exercise excess control over the lives of the members of the group. The most comprehensive model of examining the treatment of cult members by their leaders was created by Steven Hassan and is called the BITE Model of Authoritarian Control. It is widely accepted that groups are cults insofar as they comply with the BITE model. I will better explain what this entails in the section of this article titled, “BITE Control.”

Cult of Personality: The lore of Kim Il-Sung and His Predecessors

A painting with a smiling Kim Il-Sung in the center surrounded by a yellow glowing halo. In the right bottom corner, there are four Korean citizens, one of whom dressed in military attire, another in construction equipment. They are holding books and saluting the portrait of Kim Il-Sung. In the left bottom corner are three waving flags: the Workers Party of Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the Korean People’s Army.
A common piece of propaganda shows Kim Il-Sung in a glowing halo. Source: Yahoo! Images

Kim Il-Sung came to power in 1949, only 4 years after the peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel. Tensions between North and South Korea were steadily rising, and the 38th parallel was not yet demilitarized. Kim gained power through the rising hatred of South Korea and the Allies of WWII. He was a very charismatic leader who gained popularity through manipulation, false promises, and specialization*. He gave himself the name “Supreme Leader” and convinced the public of North Korea that he was sent from a god to Make Korea Great Again. The public was convinced that he was immortal, infallible, and omnipresent, similar to the concept of “God” in most religions. To this day, each North Korean home has a picture of Kim Il-Sung, and if they are found to have damaged it or taken it down, they are sent to prison. When he died in 1994, the country publicly cried out and anyone found not to be mourning was sent to prison. 

*In this context, specialization is the process by which leaders of groups make the members feel as though they are inherently different, or inherently better than non-members.

The story of his immortality had to be revised. They now told people that Kim Il-Sung willingly gave up his position as Supreme Leader because he wished for his son, Kim Jong-Il, to take over. They were told that he honorably sacrificed his life for the betterment of his country by empowering his son. Kim Jong-Il carried on his cult of personality until his death in 2011 when the process was repeated. His son, Kim Jong-Un, took over and is still in power today. Each citizen still believes that the Supreme Leader holds the power of the Universe, only dies when they choose to give up their position, and grasps a level of understanding that others cannot even aspire to.

Us vs. Them

A group of people walking in sync and wearing all white uniforms. They are parading around a large North Korean flag.
North Koreans are taught to be uniform “bricks in the wall.” Source: Yahoo! Images

Since the division of the Korean peninsula after the surrender of Japan that ended World War II, North Koreans have internalized that they are fundamentally different from other people. They believe that immigrants and their descendants with non-Korean ancestry are spies from other countries, South Koreans and Americans are inherently evil, and any outsider who criticizes the state is disrespecting their Supreme Leader and the god who sent them. By internalizing their national identity as the most important aspect of themselves, they are manipulated into devoting more and more of themselves to the regime, to the point of death. By internalizing the dehumanization of non-North Koreans, they can justify the threats of extreme violence by the regime toward other countries, such as the lingering threat of atomic war.

BITE Control 

BITE stands for behavior, information, thought, and emotion. Groups are evaluated as cults insofar as they control these four aspects of their members’ lives. View the official Bite Model here

B – Behavior Control

Any behavior not approved by the state is punishable to the fullest extent of the law, at the discretion of the judges who are appointed by the regime. As one can expect, these judges do not make decisions based on the actions of the accused. Their decisions are overwhelmingly based on one’s Songbun (or class), explained in part one of this series. People of North Korea, especially those of lower Songbun do not have control over their actions. Anything they do can and will be used against them at any chance the police force gets, without prior knowledge of any laws they may be unintentionally breaking. This strongly exacerbates the imbalance of power and starkly divides classes. In the third part of this series, I will delve deeper into the prison system of the DPRK and the corruption that comes with it. Check out the third part of this series titled, “Control by Threat of Force: The Abuses of the Criminal System of North Korea” for more information.

I – Information Control

The only media that North Koreans have access to (legally or otherwise) is 100% state-sanctioned. State-sanctioned media reporters are instructed to use certain pitches, tones, and audiovisual illusions to strategically convey their message. When watching this media, citizens are said to be put in a dissociative state, similar to the experience of those in other cults hearing leaders speak, where any meaningful information is not received. Critics of North Korea refer to this as brain fog. When this is the only media not punishable by law, it is difficult for citizens to ‘see through the fog’ for any information that could enable them to tap into their human rights or political ability. 

The DPRK extends this brain fog to the media that it allows to leave the country. Think about what you know about North Korea and if you have ever heard any clear, concise information about the human rights abuses occurring there. It probably looks foggy. They are not shy about admitting their use of this strategy.

“One of our strategies is that when the Americans look at our interior, we make it murky as if wrapped in a fog.” (Fahy, Sandra. Dying for Rights: Putting North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses on the Record. p. 93 Columbia University Press, 2019.).

This is a quote from a North Korean government directive. All information that is approved to leave is scrambled up, mistranslated, and recorded until the perfect amount of confusion and manipulation is communicated. This is why it is important for people like you to spread any information you have about the DPRK to others. Without our help, the fog will effectively stifle any chance of help for these people.

Kim Jong-Un smiles amongst a group of women. They are all wearing white uniforms, crying out, and grabbing onto Kim in adoration.
Citizens are taught to adore their Supreme Leader with every ounce of their being. Kim Jong-Un’s smile has an eerie twinge when one realizes the gross human rights violations that he regularly commits against these very women. Source: Yahoo! Images
T – Thought Control

A huge way that cults control their members is through indoctrination and the discouragement of skepticism. As seen in the last section, the only media that North Koreans are allowed to consume is state-sanctioned and heavily indoctrinating. If it is found out that any citizen is participating in skepticism about the regime, they will be thrown in prison camps. All community members are forced to report anyone that they hear questioning the regime, and it is not easy to find a group of people who share your concerns without a high risk of being ratted out. It is dangerous and isolating to question the regime, so people avoid doing so.

E – Emotion Control

Each week, every citizen of the DPRK over 14 years of age must attend and speak at a “self-evaluation meeting” with their community. In these meetings, they are forced to tell their community how they could have been better citizens of the regime during the past week. They will admit to times they accidentally bumped into their picture of Kim Il-Sung, or how they complained about being tired after laboring all day. This enforces the culture of juche, the concept of self-sufficiency that guilts North Koreans into suffering and even dying before asking anyone around them for help. These meetings more harshly affect those of lower Songbun, as they are more likely to feel as if they have let their regime down by simply being poor. This type of emotional control leads to the regime’s harsher control over its citizens.

How to Process this Information

A blue-toned graphic shows a drawing of a person doing multiple acts of self care. These include: making coffee/tea, wrapping themselves in a blanket, doing yoga, listening to music, walking their dog with a loved one, and being in nature.
Do what you need to take care of yourself. Try making yourself coffee/tea or walking your dog. Source: Yahoo! Images

Personally, learning about this initially took a bit of a toll on my mental health, so I encourage you to at least take a few deep breaths and do something to take care of yourself. By simply being aware of the ways by which the North Korean regime gains and maintains power over its citizens, you are looking through the fog that the regime intentionally placed over itself. That is a heavy burden to bear. Reading and knowing about these gross human rights violations takes a lot of cognitive and emotional resources. I encourage you, the reader, to take a few minutes after reading this post to process how you are feeling. Do some self-care. Maybe drink some water or follow a 10-minute yoga flow tutorial on youtube. Cry if you need to; you are allowed to feel. Take care of yourself so you can be better equipped to help put an end to these violations in the future. 

The Implications of an Abusive Command Economy on the Rural People of North Korea

Four young Korean children stare sorrowfully through an open window with blue doors. Their ribs are visible and their arms are skinny.
Malnutrition in childhood leads to long-term physical and cognitive health effects. By limiting resources to impoverished communities, the DPRK holds control over the bodies and minds of these people. Source: Yahoo! Images

Note from the author: This post is the first of my four-part series on the North Korean Regime. To find the other parts, scroll down and click “View all posts by A. Price.” If the other parts are not available yet, check back in during the upcoming weeks when they will be posted.

Content Warnings: mass financial abuse, famine, malnutrition, dehumanization, classism, starvation


Imagine grocery shopping for your family, and instead of finding a variety of food choices, you find a store filled with a surplus of children’s socks, different colored hats, and beach toys even though you live nowhere near the coast. The only food you can find in the store is a few loaves of moldy bread, a small produce section filled with rotting vegetables, and a frozen section with freezer-burned packaged meat. The best you can do is buy a bag full of rotting vegetables and plant them in the ground behind your house, careful not to be caught doing so by the police. The soil you remember being rich with vitamins has turned to gray dust, and everything you plant dies before sprouting. Your family will live off the rotting leftovers from last week’s grocery trip until you can scrounge together enough scraps to make it through. You know that your neighbor has a secret garden that does moderately well, so you sneak over to offer her what’s left of your money in exchange for a few vegetables. If the police catch you exchanging goods, you and your neighbor will be charged for participating in a free market, thrown in a prison camp without a fair trial, and held for an unregulated amount of time. 

The only media you’ve ever seen tells stories of a utopia; the Kim family is sent from heaven to make the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), also known as North Korea, the most wonderful place to live. They tell you that people in other countries, like South Korea and the United States, live under terrible governments who do not care for them the way the Kim family cares for you. In the end, you have no reason not to believe them. You have never seen the conditions of other countries and any criticism of your regime has been consistently disputed throughout your entire life. The stark reality of your consistent mistreatment exists in a dichotomy with the ideals that you have been brainwashed to believe to be true. 

Approximately 20 million rural North Koreans live in this reality…

Songbun

The class system of North Korea is called Songbun. At birth, each North Korean citizen is labeled as core, wavering, or hostile based on their place of birth, status, and the national origin of their ancestors. For example, a person whose ancestors immigrated from South to North Korea will be given a low Songbun and be assumed to have genetically inherited hostility towards the government. One’s Songbun can never be changed, as it determines every aspect of one’s life including how resources will be allocated to your community and how much mobility you will have throughout the state.

A pyramid chart with five horizontal sections. It is a gradient from white at the top to red at the bottom. The top section is labeled, “Supreme Leader: Kim Il-Sung (1949-1994) / Kim Jong-Il (1994-2011) / Kim Jong-Un (2011-present)” The next section is labeled, “Workers Party of Korea (WPK): More commonly known as the North Korean Regime - Consists of relatives of the Kim family and high-up government officials” The third section is labeled, “‘Core’ Songbun: Consists of people with a long family history of loyalty to the regime - most are residents of Pyongyang” The fourth section is labeled, ““Wavering” Songbun: Consists of people who have a family history of immigration and have since assimilated and residents of semi-large suburbs outside of Pyongyang” The bottom section is labeled, ““Hostile” Songbun: Consists of people with a family history of defecting, immigrating, or convicted criminals; people of non-Korean nationalities; people who have an acquired or assumed genetically-inherited hostility towards the regime”
The Hierarchy of the DPRK. Source: Diagram made by author.

The Command Economy

The Workers Party of Korea (WPK), more commonly known as the North Korean Regime, holds tight control over the command economy and uses it to abuse all people of low Songbun, specifically those who live outside the capital, Pyongyang. Instead of ordering the production of valuable goods like food and home maintenance products for their communities, they overproduce menial things, like children’s socks and beach toys. Many do not have the mobility to go to a neighboring town for resources, and as I will expand on later, many believe that they deserve to starve if they are not entirely self-sufficient.

This economic system has the dual effect of limiting opportunities to participate in the job market. People are not allowed to sell products unless they are commanded to do so by the WPK. Because the WPK is not tasked to create job opportunities for rural people, these people have no opportunity to make money, which only exacerbates the problem of reduced resources.

Lots of brightly colored shoes are piled onto shelves and hanging from the walls and ceilings in a Korean store. There are yellow signs with red and black text in Korean
The overproduction of menial things at the expense of food and necessities. Source: Yahoo! Images

The March of Suffering

The culture that encourages the idea of “suffering for the greater good” is called juche. Juche is the Korean term for the culture of self-sufficiency. It is an idea that is pushed hard into the minds of all North Koreans. Asking for help, depending on friends or family, or participating in a small-scale economy of goods with your neighbors makes you an inherently weak person because you are expected to work harder instead of “begging”. This idea is so ingrained in the minds of North Koreans that they will accept immense abuse from higher-ups at the expense of asking for help or demanding rights.

Starting in 1990, a great famine swept the nation under the rule of Kim Il-Sung. He coined the term “The March of Suffering” to refer to the famine. Using this name, he convinced those who took the hardest hit, the rural people of low Songbun, that they were doing the most honorable thing for their country by suffering in this famine. They were dying for it. Kim Il-Sung glorified their suffering by convincing them that not only did they deserve it (juche), but that their suffering was contributing to the greater good of the country. He had such control over the minds of these people that they loyally followed him straight to their graves. 

Handled correctly, this famine could have lasted no longer than a year, and would not have become nearly as severe as it has. Instead, estimates from Crossing Borders suggest that between 240,000 and 3.5 million people have died in the DPRK from malnutrition since 1990.* The famine has outlived not only Kim Il-Sung but also his predecessor Kim Jong-Il. 

*The reason for such a wide range of statistics is that collecting accurate data in North Korea is virtually impossible. I expand on the use of outside media control in the second part of this series titled, “How the North Korean Regime Uses Cult-Like Tactics to Maintain Power.”

The camera is facing down a building-lined street. The buildings are neutral colors and appear old. There are two trees with no leaves. There is a group of people all wearing the same dark green/blue clothing. One person is dressed in bright blue and standing in the middle of the street.
Even in Pyongyang, vibrant colors are rare. The buildings are drab and dull, the trees are dead, and people dress monochromatically and uniformly. The person in bright blue serves as a traffic director. Source: Flickr

Suppose the topic of North Korea is interesting to you and you want to work towards clearing up the fog surrounding the nation. In that case, I highly recommend Dying for Rights: Putting North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses on the Record by Sandra Fahy. This book is very informative and one of the only easily accessible, comprehensive accounts of North Korean human rights. It is where I learned most of what I know about the DPRK. It set the baseline on which I built my entire comprehensive understanding of the social systems at play. 

The cover of Sandra Fahy’s book. The picture on the cover is taken through a fence in North Korea. The camera’s focus is on the background, making the fence of the foreground very blurry. The view of the fence consists of a top white metal bar and five vertical bars that are red and white. In the background, which is in focus, we look over a small body of water to see a few densely packed and desolate-looking houses. The grass and trees out front are dead. There is snow on the ground. The sand is rocky and gray. There is one bright blue structure that looks like a child’s playhouse starkly contrasting its desolate surroundings. Above the fence, text reads, “Dying for Rights: Putting North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses on the Record; Sandra Fahy.”
The cover of the aforementioned book. Source: Fahy, Sandra. Dying for Rights: Putting North Korea’s Human Rights Abuses on the Record. Columbia University Press, 2019. Picture taken by A. Price.

As I will expand upon in the rest of this series, it is imperative that people outside of the DPRK “clear the fog” and find ways to look into the state. One of the biggest motivators for activism is awareness. As people on the outside, some of the most valuable things we can do are spread awareness, garner activism, and bring that activism with us into our participation in the government, whether that be running for office or simply voting for people who share our concerns.

If you are not registered to vote, you can do so here: Register to vote in the upcoming midterm election today.

The Economic Status of Transgender People in India

Hijra communities in India form their own chosen families. Source: Yahoo! images

Imagine discovering that your internal identity does not align with the way that your body looks or the way that you are perceived by society. Because you recognize this internal dichotomy, the society you know and love treats you as an outcast. You are regarded as less than human. Your family abuses you for pursuing a physical body and social presentation that aligns with your internal identity. Society at large is structured in a way that makes it relatively impossible to get a formal job or make money in a safe way. Transgender people in India experience this every day.

A. Revathi is an activist for the rights of transgender people and other gender and sexual minorities in India. In her book, A Life in Trans Activism, she details many struggles she faced while navigating the economic system of India. Most transgender people in India work in the informal spheres of sex work and street begging, but a lucky few find low-salary jobs at LGBTQ+ Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) or service places.

A picture of an Indian woman named Revathi wearing a maroon saree with gold jewelry. She has a gold stud in her nostril piercing and a red bindi between her eyebrows. White text reads, “A Life in Trans Activism, A. Revathi as told to Nandini Murali”
The cover of the aforementioned book. Source: Rēvati, and Nandini Murali. A Life in Trans Activism. Zubaan, 2016.

Because of the prejudices and stereotypes held by many employers within India, transgender people are often discriminated against in the formal sphere. If a man comes in for an interview, and his documentation still has an F sex marker, the employer will know that he is transgender and all prejudices and stereotypes that they hold will then apply to the man searching for a job. The process of changing one’s sex marker on official documents is a complicated and grueling process for transgender people, which makes it almost impossible to go stealth* in one’s workplace. It was this lack of economic mobility that lead Revathi, and many others like her to the streets for sex work.

*Stealth (adj.) – describing a transgender person who presents themself as a cisgender member of the gender they identify as, often to avoid discrimination. For example, a male-to-female (MTF) transwoman presents as a cisgender woman and keeps her trans identity a secret to avoid violence.

In India, self-employed sex work is legal, but many police officers will find other reasons to accuse sex workers of crimes like loitering or stealing, whether the accusations are true or not. The general public tends to accuse them of stealing in order to demonize them or try to get them off the streets, which often leads to violent confrontations with community members and the police. During sex work, Revathi, like many transgender women, was often put into dangerous situations with the public as a result of the deeply rooted stigma surrounding transgender people. She experienced sexual assault, public abuse, and was sometimes not paid for her services. Most transgender sex workers must be very careful to keep their identities as transgender silent because many face violence if they are outed.** On the other hand, when outed, some people receive dehumanization in the form of fetishization which results in more violence and less pay.

**To out someone (v.) – to reveal someone’s sexuality or gender identity without their permission or control, often leading to dangerous situations for them.

Economic Consequences

The few that find jobs, often at LGBTQ+ organizations, are often paid less and treated with disrespect by their colleagues and employers. While reading A Life in Trans Activism, a pattern stuck out to me. I would like to call this something like “The Vicious Cycle of Workplace Inequality.”

  1. The formal work of a certain group of people is undervalued and/or ridiculed by society.
  2. The marginalized group then internalizes this as a reflection of their character and feels as though they have “something to prove” while working in the formal sphere.
  3. They then work harder and accept lower pay than their colleagues.
  4. Co-workers and employers take advantage of their willingness to work hard for lower salaries and disrespect their work-life boundaries.
  5. The disrespect becomes a foundational aspect of their workspace, and transgender people feel and live subserviently to society. The cycle repeats.

The Vicious Cycle of Workplace Inequality can apply to any group of people whose work is undervalued. We see this in the American workforce with Black employees. There is a widely-held stereotype in America that Black people are “lazy workers” because of their lack of sufficient economic mobility. Employers internalize this and hold Black workers to a higher standard in which they must “prove themselves” as hard workers. It is often the case that Black employees work twice as hard as their White counterparts and are still undervalued by their employers and colleagues. They internalize this as a reflection of themselves and work harder and harder for less and less. This phenomenon is not only manifested in the salary gap between races, but also in the levels of worker burnout and unemployment rates.

A bar chart showing “Unemployment Rates by Race and Age, 2016”. On the y axis is 0-30% representing unemployment rates, and on the x axis is age groups from 16 to 70+. For each age range, there are two different bars representing Black and White workers. The highest unemployment rate is 16-19 year olds with Black youth at around 27% and White youth around 14%. Both statistics slowly fall before plateauing at around the 40-44 age range, with Black workers at around 6.5% and White workers at around 3.5%. These statistics stay pretty consistent for the rest of the chart, if not a slight dip around the age ranges 50-60.
Statistics show much higher unemployment rates for Black individuals in every age range. Source: Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics

A. Revathi experienced the Vicious Cycle herself while working as an openly transgender woman at an LGBTQ+ NGO in India called Sangama. Even while she was head director of multiple subsections of the NGO, she experienced disrespect from the staff she was directing. Here, Revathi reflects on her experience:

“[Sangama staff] were well behaved with [past directors] and respected boundaries. However, with me, they were very different. They would storm into my cabin and argue endlessly with me, often in very rude or offensive language. They demanded prompt promotions, increases in salaries, and crowded my working hours with endless demands and trivial things, which they could have handled themselves.” (Rēvati, 110) 

Revathi charitably credits this to her open-door policy and her show of belief that hierarchies in workplaces were solely for accounting purposes, and should not reflect upon the social interactions of the staff. I suspect that the main reason that she has these policies and beliefs is that her work has been consistently undervalued and she has internalized that she will never be seen as “above” anyone else in her workplace. By setting and enforcing certain boundaries with her staff, she would have to acknowledge that she is above them in the workplace. This would break the social contract that says that she is always on the base of the metaphorical pyramid because of her transgender identity.

Government Progress (or lack thereof)

A large group of mostly women in colorful saris, jewelry, and makeup gather together with black signs with white text. One reads, "Protect the Rights of Transgender Community".
Transgender Indian protesters gather to fight for the implementation of policies that protect their rights. Source: Yahoo! images

The Indian Supreme Court ruled in 2014 to create a third gender category called “hijra” which would be inclusive of gender nonconforming and transgender individuals. People in this category were legally categorized as an “other backward class” or OBC. Job reservations were made for people of OBCs in an attempt to improve the economic status of transgender people. Read more about this ruling here. 

In addition to this ruling, in 2019 the “Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill” was passed, which served as an anti-discrimination bill meant to improve the status of transgender people in education and the workforce. It was faced with backlash from the trans community because it required a person to submit proof of gender reassignment surgery to the government before being able to change their gender marker legally. This type of policy is called trans-medicalism*** and is exclusive and harshly binary. Read more about this bill here.

***Trans-medicalism (n.) – the idea that one must medically transition, in other words: go through gender reassignment surgery, in order to be a valid member of the transgender community. 

Although these actions were well-intended, neither the 2014 ruling nor the 2019 bill has been well enforced. They have been inefficient in changing the economic and educational statuses of transgender people. Employers still have room to discriminate against workers. Sex workers are still treated horrifically and inhumanely in the streets. Transgender employees are still disrespected in their workplaces and have low opportunities for economic mobility. One of the problems with these actions is that they are both “top-down” approaches, which start with government implementation and slowly trickle down into cultural changes and real-life improvements for transgender people. Many recommend a “bottom-up” approach, which begins with radical cultural shifts and builds its way up to government implementation. While both are valuable, the “bottom-up” approach is more efficient in creating quicker social change for people genuinely affected by the social issues at hand.