There are, of course, countless ways to refute this incredibly uninformed and ungrateful opinion. One could point out statistics showing that capitalism has brought more people out of poverty than any other system in history. Capitalism has saved billions of lives, even as socialism (the government ownership and operation of the means of production) has killed tens of millions.
But, as a famous socialist murderer (sorry for the repetition and redundancy) once reportedly said: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” So today, I will skip the statistics, and tell the stories of two men whose lives were ruined by socialism in North Korea: Shin Dong-hyuk and Masaji Ishikawa.
These two people share a rare distinction: they escaped the hell that is socialist North Korea and lived to tell about it. I recently finished books about their lives, and I thought I’d share some of the details I learned with you, the reader — because although we all know that North Korea is a bad place, these books provide a compelling picture of the reality that its citizens suffer through, both inside and outside the labor camps. And the books together paint a somewhat less than flattering picture of socialism, to put it mildly.
The first book I read is Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden. This book was recommended by Ben Sasse in his book The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis–and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance, which I recently finished and also recommend. Escape from Camp 14 tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, who is apparently the only person ever born inside a North Korean “complete control district” prison camp to escape.
Shin’s family was confined to the camp as punishment for the sins of his uncle. Shin was beaten by his teachers and starved and tortured by authorities. Author Harden explains that the camps are violent and the rules in the camp were oppressive and unforgiving. For example, a camp rule stated: “Should sexual physical contact occur without prior approval, the perpetrators will be shot immediately.” Prison guards would choose women to rape — but if the women became pregnant, their babies would be beaten to death with iron rods, and the women would be executed.
Eventually, Shin met a former member of the elite caste of society named Park, and formulated a plan to escape with him. By chance, Park reached the electric fence at the perimeter of the camp first and was fatally electrocuted. Shin was able to crawl over Park’s body and escape to freedom in China, and eventually America and (today) South Korea, where he is a human rights activist.
It is worth noting that Shin has changed details about his story more than once, usually in understandable ways that do not change the fundamental truth of his portrait of the camps. Shin initially misled Harden about how many camps in which he had been confined (two rather than one), and had omitted painful details such as the torture he had experienced in which his fingernails had been pulled out. Harden has written a new foreward to the book, and expects to revise it in response to these revelations — but Harden emphasizes that many key aspects of Shin’s story have been extensively corroborated by accounts of dozens of defectors and other witnesses, as well as by the wounds on Shin’s body. Meanwhile, although North Korea denies that the camps exist, outside experts are not allowed to verify these claims. Indeed, the sprawling camps are visible in satellite photos. One is larger than the city of Los Angeles. Anywhere from 120,000 to 200,000 people are thought to be confined to these camps.
The next book I read, on the suggestion of a commenter to my blog, was A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa. Ishikawa’s story is quite different: the story of the Japanese son of a Korean “returnee” to North Korea. From the late 1950s to about 1984, about 100,000 Koreans left Japan for North Korea, lured (as Ishikawa’s father was) by promises of a “paradise on Earth” and promises of a great education for the kids. What they found was squalor, starvation, misery, and joining the ranks of the lowest of the low. Worse, Ishikawa’s father wasn’t even a true “returnee,” as his birthplace was South Korea. He had never even been to North Korea until he was lured there by the false assurances of his Korean comrades in Japan.
Unlike Shin, Ishikawa knew about the existence of a better life outside of North Korea. In school, he was constantly called “Japanese bastard” as a matter of course, as were all Japanese children. Although never locked in a prison camp, Ishikawa suffered a life of deprivation and starvation. He and his family searched for food in the woods and subsisted on weeds. He built a shack with his bare hands over the course of months. His Japanese mother withered away and died — as his Korean father later did as well. When his mother died, he hauled her corpse on his back up a mountainside to bury her. At one point, Ishikawa tried to hang himself — but failed to coil the rope around his neck correctly.
In 1996, Ishikawa escaped the country and made it into China by crossing the Yalu River at Hyesan in the far north. With the help of a kind Korean man in China, his friends, and eventually the Japanese government, he made it back to Japan. He was unable to save his family, however.
Informing on family
Socialist governments encourage their citizens to inform on each other, including family, and North Korea is no exception. Shin, the prisoner, was raised not to feel affection for his family, but instead to inform on his parents, friends, or anyone. When he learned that his brother and mother were planning to escape, he went to a camp official to inform on his parents. This is a story that he is ashamed of today, and that he hid from author Harden for years — but finally disclosed. He told the official that he wanted more food and easier work in return for the information. His mother and brother were later executed for the plan, directly in front of him. He watched as, feet away, his mother was hung and his brother was gruesomely shot in the head. (The state urging children to inform on their parents is a theme familiar to those who have studied China’s Cultural Revolution, which I read about in the book Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-li Jiang.)
Meanwhile, the camp official to whom Shin disclosed his mother and brother’s escape plan took all the credit himself for preventing the escape. The official’s refusal to give any credit to Shin resulted in Shin being taken to an underground prison within the prison, where he was tortured for months, suspended over an open flame and burned, and beaten mercilessly.
Socialism’s road to starvation
Both books spend considerable time talking about the dire lack of food in North Korea. Food became the driving obsession of Shin’s life. He and his compatriots foraged for food in the forest. They ate meals without water, thinking that would help ease hunger pains. They would refrain as long as possible from defecating, thinking that doing so would help them feel full. Or they would regurgitate their food and eat it again, thinking this would somehow be satisfying (it wasn’t). They were happy to catch and eat rats.
For his part, Ishikawa describes how his family would survive by eating mushrooms and weeds. At other times, they “were subsisting on dandelions, bracken, and mugwort” boiled with a poisonous paste made of acorns that caused their tongues to go numb. Or they would steal daikon radishes and mix them with a few grains of scrounged rice to form a thin gruel. Or they would eat pine-tree bark, which they would boil to remove toxins, mix in cornstarch, and end up with a stinking mess that gave them “concrete” feces that they would have to dig out of their rectum with their finger. Ishikawa describes how, when you’re starving, “you lose all the fat from your lips and nose.” Your teeth are constantly bared, and your nose becomes simply nostrils, nothing more. You become a walking skeleton. The urine of Ishikawa and his family “turned red or even blue.” Ishikawa’s wife, who was pregnant at the time, sold her blood to obtain rice — something, ironically, that the North Korean government falsely claimed that people in South Korea had to do to survive. There were rumors that some North Koreans resorted to cannibalism. At the worst times, bodies piled up in the streets, ignored by the shambling hulks of the starving, barely alive citizens of this socialist paradise.
Socialism’s income inequality and caste system
By contrast to this miserable picture, as author Harden explains, Kim Jong-un’s family lives in absolute splendor. They reportedly have eight country houses, including “movie theaters, basketball courts, and shooting ranges.” The grounds of their houses have horse racing tracks and water parks. They own a yacht with a large pool. Talk about your income inequality!
North Korea is run according to a strict caste system, as described by both Harden and Ishikawa. The “Worker’s Paradise” has three classes: the “core” or “nucleus” class (officers in military, government workers, and the like), neutrals (or “basic” or “wavering” classes, including “soldiers, technicians, and teachers”) and the “hostile” or “irredeemable” class thought to be hostile to the government.
Interesting, that use of the word “irredeemable,” isn’t it? As we saw at the outset of this column, that’s the same word Rep. Ocasio-Cortez uses to describe capitalism — even as she praises socialism, the system that made possible the squalor and income inequality in North Korea I describe in this post. And yet, black markets — which crop up in every socialist country, by the way — were one of the main ways citizens used to ease the pain of famine. In other words, the tiniest incursion of capitalism helps people survive in the oppressive regime of the socialist state.
Elites don’t do quite as nicely as the Kim family, but as in every socialist utopia, they do far better than the non-elites. Rice is a luxury, and a rice cooker in a home is a coveted status symbol held only by the “core” class. The basic class is poor indeed. Average workers in Seoul have multiple times the income of the average worker in North Korea, whose average income is lower even than that of the average worker in Sudan, Congo, or Laos.
The “hostile” or “irredeemable” class is worst off of all — and the least fortunate of them, such as Shin, can spend their lives in labor camps.
The abject suffering of the “hostile” or “irredeemable” class is an inevitable consequence of socialism. Ishikawa explains simply and well the mechanism by which socialism leads to privation, misery, and eventually starvation. Farmers “knew that, however long they worked and however much effort they put in, they wouldn’t be rewarded for their labors; the pay would be the same.” So they lost all motivation. They knew that the “Juche” style of farming that put rice too close together would ruin the crop. But they said nothing. Why bother? All that would do is anger the bureaucrats and risk punishment.
How about the notion of socialist health care that Ocasio-Cortez is so keen to see implemented in the United States? In a comment that will sound familiar to students of Soviet Russia, Ishikawa says: “Health care in North Korea is supposedly free, but in reality, it isn’t free at all. Poor people can’t get treatment without some form of payment.” Potential bribes include alcohol, cigarettes, or Chinese medicine. Otherwise, no health care for you. This is your socialist health care utopia.
Socialism’s political indoctrination
Harden’s book about the camps has relatively little about political indoctrination. Most people in the camps were never going to be released; the main thing was that they work. Ishikawa has much more discussion about the political indoctrination under Kim’s socialist state.
The North Korea that Ishikawa describes is truly like George Orwell’s novel 1984:
Serfdom is freedom. Repression is liberation. A police state is a democratic republic. And we were “the masters of our destiny.” And if we begged to differ, we were dead.
Ishikawa describes how it was difficult to get any actual work done — because work was constantly interrupted by ideological study meetings. “In the end, all that matters was whether our loyalty toward Kim Il-sung appeared credible. So we became masters at faking it. Everyone did. To do anything else could have gotten us killed.” At the study meetings, citizens learned and memorized Ten Commandments of the North Korean state. Each included a reference to the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung. For example: “Thou shalt honor the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung with all thy loyalty.” Ishikawa notes that not even God’s Ten Commandments mention God as often as the North Korean commandments mention the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung.
Have you ever seen videos of the reaction to the death of Kim Jong-il? Here is one. It’s worth watching all the way through.
I have often wondered when watching videos like this: is any of the agony for real, or are they all faking it? It’s impossible to know for sure, but Ishikawa says that in his opinion “the trouble is that some people really do end up brainwashed. They come to believe all the bullsh*t.” But, he adds, “there are also many who don’t. And one day, they’ll be the downfall of the house of cards that is North Korea.”
What can you do?
Reading about all this desolation, the reader might ask: “What can I do about it?” There are several answers.
- LEARN ABOUT IT: One of the simplest things you can do is simply educate yourself about socialism, in North Korea and elsewhere. Read the books I have discussed in this post, or books like them. Read Red Scarf Girl by Ji-li Jiang or The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
- NEVER MINIMIZE IT: We have an unfortunate tendency in this country to treat Kim Jong-un as a somewhat comical figure. Yes, he is funny-looking, issues laughable pronouncements, and has absurd ambitions. But it is good to remember history; people who met Hitler in the 1920s and 1930s often “burst out laughing at his shrill voice and jerky hand movements and refused to take him seriously.” But like Hitler, Kim is a violent criminal. What wealth North Korea does own is built largely by criminal enterprises, such as cyber terrorism, trade in illegal narcotics, counterfeiting U.S. currency, and selling nuclear technology to Iran and Syria. In addition to this, North Korea is arguably the most barbarous regime on the planet. It is no exaggeration to say that the horrors described by Shin to Harden rival those of the Soviet gulags or the Nazi concentration camps, nor does any such comparison disrespect those who have suffered through the cruelty and savagery of any of these places. Never minimize what they do to their people. Never excuse their leadership for what takes place there. Ronald Reagan helped defeat the Soviet Union, a nuclear power far more potent than North Korea, by denouncing it as an “evil empire” and strongly and consistently criticizing its leaders’ human rights abuses. This was the right move, and it led to the right result.
- REJECT CULTS OF PERSONALITY: One thing that comes out loud and clear in these books, or any book about socialist totalitarianism, is the cult of personality that builds around the Dear Leader, whether it be Mao, Stalin, or Kim. Humans have an unlucky predisposition to participate in cults of personality. Often, people simply cannot abide any criticism of their favored politician, and they will form a mob (whether virtual or real) to attack those who would dare say an unkind word about the guy or gal they hold in such high regard. This happens everywhere, including in the U.S. — and it happens with every party, including Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians … you name it. Don’t be part of it. Embrace pluralism and vigorous debate.
- SPREAD THE WORD, AND DONATE TO CHARITIES THAT HELP NORTH KOREAN REFUGEES: Harden makes the point that the problems of North Korea don’t get a lot of attention in this country. Because of the utter repression that happens there, there is no video that people can slap on the TV to make people feel sorry for North Koreans. There isn’t even a well-known celebrity pushing the issue. As Harden notes, Tibetans had Richard Gere and Darfur had George Clooney, but no celebrity pushes the issue of starvation in North Korea. Indeed, to the extent celebrities talk about North Korea at all, it tends to be muttonheads like Dennis Rodman calling Kim his “friend for life” and a “great guy.”So spread the word. And donate to organizations trying to help refugees. One great organization I have donated to is called Liberty in North Korea. I will donate the money I receive from writing this post to them. And finally, and most obviously…
- REJECT SOCIALISM: Socialism — the government ownership and operation of the means of production — is always and everywhere an oppressive system that leads to totalitarianism, political repression, murder, and starvation. It is fashionable these days to condemn capitalism, as AOC has … and to advocate, if not full-blown socialism, just a little socialism. It is true that just moving down the Road to Serfdom will not immediately create starvation for millions. A little socialism will cause just a little misery, and a decent amount of socialism will cause a decent amount of misery. Millions don’t start dying until you take more radical steps to give the government control over the economy. But why even start down that Road, if you realize that Serfdom is the destination?
The key points here are to become aware of what happens in North Korea and other socialist countries, to take it seriously and never to minimize it or excuse the regime for the atrocities that occur there — and to realize that the hellish poverty we see in North Korea is the inevitable consequence of socialism, in each and every place where that “irredeemable” system is tried.
In the end, not everyone understands the benefits that capitalism has brought humanity, and the anguish, suffering, and death that socialism has wrought upon countless millions. We have to spread the word. This column is my small effort to do just that. If you made it all the way to the end of this piece, thanks! — and please take a moment to send it to someone you know who could use a little education on the topic.