Earlier this month at the National Assembly in Seoul, President Trump highlighted the tragic tale of the “two Koreas” — one free, just and peaceful, the other tyrannical, oppressive and dangerous. This contrast is at the root of America’s most urgent national security challenge. It is also now on vivid display in a South Korean hospital, where doctors are working to save a wounded and malnourished North Korean soldier who defected last week from Kim Jong-un’s slave state.
The defector, whose full name is still not publicly known, risked his life by speeding across the Demilitarized Zone in a jeep, then dashing across the heavily guarded border at Panmunjon. He knew that North Korean troops have shoot-to-kill orders against anyone trying to flee. By the time he made it across, some six bullets had pierced his arms and torso.
South Korean guards rescued him 55 yards south of the border, and doctors soon discovered just how grave his condition was: Along with the bullet wounds, he also had hepatitis B, pneumonia and “an enormous number” of parasitic worms in his intestines, some up to 11 inches long. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my 20 years as a physician,” said his South Korean surgeon. The worms can burrow into fresh wounds, with potentially devastating effects.
This defector’s plight is a window onto North Korean life. For all the regime’s spending on sophisticated weapons, monuments to the Kim family and bribes for elites in Pyongyang, even trusted soldiers suffer terrible malnourishment. A vast majority of other North Koreans endure still worse. Such is the cruelty of North Korea’s regime — and such is the responsibility of those foreign governments that enable it.
Every one of North Korea’s 23 million people is subject to the brutal state-imposed caste system known as songbun. The word “songbun” should be notorious around the world. From birth, every North Korean is marked by the government as a member of a loyal “core” caste, a “wavering” middle caste or a “hostile” caste, and this designation determines access to food, housing, education, jobs — everything. During the famine of the 1990s, when more than two million North Koreans perished, the songbun system often determined who ate and who starved.
North Korea once had relatively productive heavy industry, in addition to minerals and other natural resources. But while South Korea boomed after the Korean War and became one of the world’s great economies, the Communist North immiserated its people. Malnutrition makes children in North Korea significantly shorter and thinner than children in South Korea.
Some 30,000 North Koreans have defected, mostly in the past two decades, and mostly by traveling a highly dangerous route through China and eventually to South Korea. Part of the danger comes from the North Korean border guards who shoot to kill. Part of the danger comes from vicious human traffickers who lure defectors into forced labor or prostitution. And part of the danger comes from Chinese authorities who send defectors back to North Korea, where they face imprisonment and execution. Such repatriations violate China’s clear legal obligations under the International Refugee Convention.
North Korea also goes after those defectors who manage to make it to freedom. The Trump administration this week designated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, partly because of assassinations of North Korean defectors and dissidents abroad, including Kim Jong-un’s half brother, killed recently with VX nerve agent in Malaysia. The United States will not sit idly by as a rogue regime lawlessly pursues those who have made the life-or-death choice to run to freedom.
Kim Jong-un also sends North Koreans overseas to earn money for his regime through slave labor at mines, logging camps, construction sites and the like, especially in China. Russia also uses North Korean forced laborers, some of whom are believed to have worked on soccer stadiums for the 2018 World Cup. United Nations officials estimated that Pyongyang earns some $230 million a year this way. The Trump administration has called on China, Russia and all other countries exploiting North Korean forced labor to cease immediately.
It is important to detail North Korea’s human rights horrors because they lend insight into the nuclear menace we face, and into those other countries still willing to trade with and cover for the Pyongyang regime. The North is as threatening to peace in Asia as it is cruel to its own people. It is past time for all civilized nations — and certainly for all nations seeking greater respect on the international stage — to work together fully for North Korean denuclearization, belatedly but finally.
As for last week’s defector, when he woke up from surgery this week, he is reported to have asked to listen to South Korean songs and watch American movies — a small taste of freedom long denied. As Americans take time this week to be thankful, may we all regard our freedom as so precious.
Brian H. Hook is the director of policy planning and senior policy adviser at the State Department.