The communist government of North Korea has long held a spot on the list of the world’s most repressive tyrannies, with human rights organizations regularly condemning the atrocities committed by the Kim family regime.
Secretive as dictator Kim Jong-un may be – as were his predecessors, his father and grandfather – a mixture of witness accounts and defector testimonies have exposed the harrowing details of life in North Korea. Below are listed seven of the strangest and most horrifying realities about how the Kim regime runs North Korea:
Christians Are Bulldozed to Death for Expressing Their Faith:
Before the rise of late “Eternal Leader” Kim Il-sung and the creation of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the region boasted one of the world’s most devout Christian populations. Pyongyang, the nation’s capital, earned the nickname “Jerusalem of the East” for its thriving Christian community. The Kim family itself was once Christian before Kim Il-sung abandoned the faith and forbade his people from practicing it.
Today, possessing a Bible is a high crime against the state and those who openly profess the faith face execution by gruesome means. A report published by the group Christian Solidarity Worldwide last year highlighted particularly atrocious executions of Christians: “Documented incidents against Christians include being hung on a cross over a fire, crushed under a steamroller, herded off bridges, and trampled underfoot. A policy of guilt by association applies, meaning that the relatives of Christians are also detained regardless of whether they share the Christian belief.”
Those Christians not killed for their faith are condemned to lifetimes in the nation’s notorious labor camps where they are tortured, raped, and used as slave labor. Estimates of the number of Christians in the country range from 200,000 to 400,000.
The regime targets Christians because loyalty to Jesus challenges the cult of personality surrounding the Kim family. According to Kenneth Bae, an American missionary who was arrested for proselytizing in the country, the nation’s museums have Bibles on display as enemy weapons. In his memoir, Bae writes that one prosecutor told him, “You say it is just prayer, but prayer is a hostile act because it calls into question everything our system is based upon.”
In Addition to Christians, the Disabled Are Put in Labor Camps:
Reports have consistently surfaced that the North Korean regime has little interest in respecting the human rights of individuals who are disabled, identifying them as being of little use to the country as soldiers or slaves. A 2012 United Nations report claimed that the Kim regime organized “special camps” for the disabled, where they are sent after being classified by type of disability and removed from society.
The country explicitly bars the mentally disabled from engaging with the general population, and those considered dwarfs are banned from having children. The UN described the treatment of the disabled as “merciless.”
Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector who lost two of his limbs in an accident, confirmed these reports in 2014. “The regime proclaims: ‘There are no people with disabilities under the Kims’ rule’ and ‘everyone is equal and living well,'” he told reporters. “And while that propaganda is going on disabled children are being taken away, suffering indescribable things and dying.”
Hundreds of Thousands of Political Prisoners Are Subject to Rape, Torture, and Starvation:
North Koreans can end up in labor/prison camps for a staggering variety of reasons: Insufficiently worshipping the Kim family, trying to escape North Korea, getting ahold of deviant foreign media like music and movies. Those who have escaped compare the labor camps to Nazi-era concentration camps where soldiers torture, rape, and starve prisoners.
The United Nations estimates that “hundreds of thousands” are trapped in these camps, subject to “deliberate starvation, forced labor, executions, torture, rape and the denial of reproductive rights.”
“Because you were so hungry, you thought about food and how to get more of it all the time,” Hyuk Kim, a labor camp survivor, recalled. “Sometimes you got lucky and you were able to catch a rat or two as a snack, which you’d skin, dry the meat out and eat, usually raw. If you tried to cook the rats, the guards would smell the meat or fire, catch you and beat you mercilessly.”
Kim Kwang-Il, another survivor of these camps, drew illustrations for CNN of various torture methods used at the camps, including forcing prisoners into stressful body positions for hours, hanging them by the arms and beating them until they vomit, and visibly feeding corpses to rats.
The Average North Korean Hospital Doesn’t Have Water:
The world for North Koreans outside of these camps – the ones trusted to live in society – is hardly better. Multiple reports throughout the past decade suggest that the nation’s hospitals are lacking the most basic food and medicinal needs, and even more alarmingly, they lack clean water. A 2010 Los Angeles Times report, citing Amnesty International, noted that North Korea appeared to suffer serious shortages of “sterilized needles, clean water, food and medicine, and patients are forced to undergo agonizing surgery without anesthesia.”
Defectors generally support this image of North Korean health care, testifying to the wide use of methamphetamine when medicines are unavailable and surgeries without sterilization or anesthesia. Some say that health care improves if citizens bribe their doctors with items like cigarettes.
North Koreans Are Born into a Strict Caste System:
The North Korean government keeps strict tabs on citizens by keeping detailed accounts of their family history and classifying them by songbun, a word roughly meaning “background” but ultimately referring to “caste.”
According to Human Rights Watch, Kim Il-sung developed a caste system in which each citizen falls into one of three categories: The “core,” “wavering,” and “hostile.” Hostile individuals either have a personal record of dissent or relatives with such records, going back generations. The system gives families incentives to silence dissenters within their ranks, lest their children’s prospects for a stable job and food on the table diminish greatly.
The first round of songbun classification, NK News notes, involved family activity “during the Japanese colonial period and the Korean War.” NK News’s version of the castes breaks down as “special,” “nucleus,” “basic,” “complex,” and “hostile.”
No matter how loyal to the regime someone born in the “basic” or “complex” categories may be, their opportunities within the country to enter the nation’s elite families will always be limited. What’s more, anyone whose songbun is especially repugnant is barred from Pyongyang for life, condemned to live in the impoverished North Korean countryside.
Watching the Wrong Movie Could Get You Executed:
For North Koreans, any attempt to visibly think about anything other than the greatness of the Kim family will result in severe punishment. The nation’s television stations, according to dissenters, play a constant loop of homages to the greatness of all three Kims, while musical performances extol the virtues of the juche philosophy, a term used by Kim Il-sung meaning “self-reliance” for which few have found a coherent definition.
The few who dare to indulge in any media other than what the state allows face serious consequences. Multiple defectors have testified that those caught with smuggled videos of American movies or South Korean soap operas have been executed, on some occasions publicly to discourage similar behavior.
A 2013 report in the JoongAng Ilbo exposed the public execution of 80 individuals for a variety of media-related crimes. Some were executed for possessing Bibles, others for watching South Korean TV. An estimated 10,000 were forced to watch the killings throughout the country. A report two years later revealed a similar, but private, execution for possessing South Korean media.
Park Yeonmi, a North Korean defector, also told the story of watching a public execution as a child, of the mother of one of her friends. The woman had apparently been caught possessing a Hollywood film.
The North Korean Government Views Koreans as a Master Race:
Both foreigners who have visited the country and defectors confirm that the North Korean government is extremely racist, and the government itself has confirmed that in a barrage of racist invective against President Barack Obama during his tenure.
“Obama always goes reckless in words and deeds like a monkey in a tropical forest,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said of the president following the release of the 2014 film The Interview, over which the president had no authority. The KCNA had previously referred to Obama as a “wicked black monkey” and a “crossbreed,” the Washington Post noted at the time.
North Korea is among the world’s least racially diverse countries, and there is no evidence that any black people live there to suffer this racism first-hand. Visitors have lived to tell the tale, however – Foreign Policy notes the story of a Cuban ambassador who, in 1965, was attacked by a mob for being black – told in the B.R. Myers book The Cleanest Race.
The book argues that North Korea’s ideology is not pure communism, but racial superiority, summarizing the Kim philosophy as: “The Korean people are too pure blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader.”
The late Christopher Hitchens wrote with shock of a conversation he had with his “minder,” a designated government official who escorts North Korea’s visitors at all times, in which the man explained hopefully that South Korea’s government would soon fall under Pyongyang’s rule because South Koreans were “becoming mongrelized,” marrying even black people.
North Korea’s government, The New York Times noted in 2009, appeared little more comfortable with foreigners who looked more like them. “Even today, the North Korean authorities often force abortion on women who return home pregnant after going to China to find food, according to defectors and human rights groups,” the newspaper reported.