Pursuing Aid for North Korea

At present, I want to work on behalf of the unfortunate souls attempting to flee repression and famine. All of us, we and the government, must be more active. We are all brothers it seems, but our sisters are being bought and sold at the border. Are we to continue showing such restraint? The shortages in food, energy, and medicine are serious. According to anecdotal reports by journalists, there have been countless victims. Estimates are that famine will cause between 1 and 3 million deaths. No more accurate number is available, because no one has penetrated the North Korean bunker deeply enough to perform an adequate study. Anyone who has stood as I have beside a person slowly dying of hunger—who has seen this horror with his own eyes—will never linger to debate the pros and cons of food aid. The only real question is one of distribution. Who knows how much aid is siphoned off to buttress the army? One often hears such objections, even among people who want to see more food go to the North.

It’s true that in North Korea the army comes first. But it is not a professional army cut off from the rest of the population. It is made up entirely of volunteers—legions upon legions of them. Frequently, the requests outnumber the openings. The backgrounds of the volunteers explain their enthusiasm. Many of them are the children of peasants, for whom the army is a first step to entering the Party. The poorest families enlist their children because they know they will get food and clothing there. The army also represents an opportunity to climb the social ladder: thirty percent of all veterans go on to enter the university.

Another argument against offering aid is that even when it’s not diverted to the army, it allows the regime to save its foreign currency—which it should be spending on cereals—for weapons purchases and sumptuous feasts in honor of the country’s leaders. Here is the dilemma one always faces when trying to help a population that has fallen victim to famine-causing political and economic systems: aiding the population also means maintaining the regime.

The question of aid, whether of food or anything else, is not primary; rather, priority should be given to receiving those who escape and according them protection under the law. More work also must be done to introduce the people of North Korea to the outside world, and the outside world to North Korea. International public opinion and world leaders should be pressed to become more conscious of the North Korean tragedy and to force Kim Jong-il to change his behavior or risk being condemned by an international court.

I did not join in the exaltation and enthusiasm shared by many South Koreans during the recent summit between North and South Korea. One has to be naive to believe that Kim Jong-il’s smile and affability as a host signal any real change in a dictatorial regime without equal in the modern world—a place where the population has been kept in a constant state of terror for decades. If Kim Jong-il is smiling, it’s because he is sure of his grip on power and plans to continue exercising it with the same contempt he has always had for the most basic of human rights.

Swimming against the tide of public opinion, I’ve attempted to explain—most notably in the July 2000 issue of the magazine Chosun—that Kim Jong-il’s friendliness is calculated. His feigned desire for greater openness has the same end as his years of calculated reclusion: to deepen and expand his own mythification. I also explained that reunification with the North as it stands today is impossible. South Korea is a democratic country, a place where power lies with the people. In the North, people lead a pathetic existence given over entirely to the Party and Kim Jong-il, who confiscates power for his own ends. The only acceptable reunification is one that grants North Koreans the freedom to lead a life worthy of human beings. They are now dying of hunger without the right to utter a word of protest, crushed by a system that walks all over their fundamental human rights.

We are told that the answer to these little problems—the respect for human rights, the concentration camps, the kidnaping of South Korean and Japanese citizens—currently is not of primary concern. We are told that this debate would be better left for another day, that the North Koreans’ lot should improve before we undertake reunification; but by then they’ll all be dead!

Reunification is inevitable, but it can only take place once Pyongyang has stopped crucifying the population under its control. How can we stand by while troops of orphans cross the Yalu and Tumen rivers seeking refuge in China? How can we stand by while parents sell their daughters for something to eat? I don’t want to see any more skeletal children with wide, frightened eyes. I don’t want any more children sent to the camps and their mothers forced to divorce their fathers. I want their grandfathers to be around to tell them stories—and their giggles on the banks of the Daedong never to be interrupted by the arrival of bureaucrats from the Security Force.


This name is encountered in the journal of Hamel, a seventeenth-century Dutch sailor, who lived in Korea for a time. He gives the spelling as Quelpaert. This spelling appears on a number of maps. (All the notes in this book are Pierre Rigoulot’s.)


See page 120.


Kang Chol-hwan is alluding to a short story by Alphonse Daudet entitled “La Dernière Class,” which appears in the collection Contes du lundi. The story tells of a painful falling out between a class of Alsatian students and their French teacher, whom the students abruptly abandon in favor of a newly arrived German Lehrer. Koreans lived through a similar experience during Japanese colonization, which explains why this story is one of the most famous works of French literature in Korea.


The letter dates from May 5, 1946. See Kim Il-sung, Complete Works, vol. 2 (Pyongyang: 1980), 193, foreign language edition.


Namdaemun is a large market in Seoul that is active day and night.


Literally, “older sister,” a respectful form of address employed regardless of any actual family connection.

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