failure magazine's Jason Zasky interviews Melanie Kirkpatrick, author of Escape From North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad, as she explains life in "the world's most repressive state." Disturbingly fascinating.
One of the things we've learned from the people who have escaped is what life is like there. When I started the research for the book I already knew a lot about North Korea -- or thought I did -- but the more people I interviewed the more I learned, and I learned that it is far worse than even I imagined. One way to describe how awful it is is that the government controls access to food. Those who are considered politically loyal and friendly to the regime are at the top of the list and those who aren't are at the bottom. And a lot of people who live in the northern regions of the country -- which is considered North Korea's Siberia -- are at the bottom of the list. The food shortages are particularly severe in the north.
Another thing we've learned about is the apartheid-like system in North Korea. Every individual is assigned to a political class -- a social caste, really. That is determined mostly by one's family background and political loyalty. So, for example, if your grandfather was a Christian and fought in the Korean War on the side of the south, you as a grandson or granddaughter would be given a very low position in this caste system. You can never outgrow your assigned caste. [It] determines the kind of education you get, the kind of job you are assigned to, and who is willing to marry you. Of course, no one is going to be interested in marrying someone in a low caste if they can aspire higher.
Finally, from interviewing people I've learned about the extraordinary brutality of life in North Korea. You've probably heard about the torture and food depravation and the harshness of life in the political prison camps, but those conditions apply to the other prisons as well. One team of American social scientists did a survey of North Koreans hiding out in China and discovered that an astonishing ninety-five percent of them had some violent encounter with the police or security agencies. [Police] can pull somebody off the street and take them in for questioning and rough them up. A North Korean has zero rights.
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