North Korea's nuclear test was a "historic event that brought happiness to our military and people", so reported the Korean Central News Agency. Happiness to the people? I don't think so. The North Korean people have suffered immeasurably under Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il-Sung. Christopher Hitchens, in a column titled Worse Than 1984, wrote:
In North Korea, every person is property and is owned by a small and mad family with hereditary power. Every minute of every day, as far as regimentation can assure the fact, is spent in absolute subjection and serfdom. The private life has been entirely abolished. One tries to avoid cliché, and I did my best on a visit to this terrifying country in the year 2000, but George Orwell's 1984 was published at about the time that Kim Il Sung set up his system, and it really is as if he got hold of an early copy of the novel and used it as a blueprint. ("Hmmm … good book. Let's see if we can make it work.")
Actually, North Korea is rather worse than Orwell's dystopia. There would be no way, in the capital city of Pyongyang, to wander off and get lost in the slums, let alone to rent an off-the-record love nest in a room over a shop. Everybody in the city has to be at home and in bed by curfew time, when all the lights go off (if they haven't already failed). A recent nighttime photograph of the Korean peninsula from outer space shows something that no "free-world" propaganda could invent: a blaze of electric light all over the southern half, stopping exactly at the demilitarized zone and becoming an area of darkness in the north.
Concealed in that pitch-black night is an imploding state where the only things that work are the police and the armed forces. The situation is actually slightly worse than indentured servitude. The slave owner historically promises, in effect, at least to keep his slaves fed.
In North Korea, this compact has been broken. It is a famine state as well as a slave state. Partly because of the end of favorable trade relations with, and subsidies from, the former USSR, but mainly because of the lunacy of its command economy, North Korea broke down in the 1990s and lost an unguessable number of people to sheer starvation. The survivors, especially the children, have been stunted and malformed. Even on a tightly controlled tour of the place—North Korea is almost as hard to visit as it is to leave—my robotic guides couldn't prevent me from seeing people drinking from sewers and picking up individual grains of food from barren fields. (I was reduced to eating a dog, and I was a privileged "guest.") Film shot from over the Chinese border shows whole towns ruined and abandoned, with their few factories idle and cannibalized. It seems that the mines in the north of the country have been flooded beyond repair.
In consequence of this, and for the first time since the founding of Kim Il Sung's state, large numbers of people have begun to take the appalling risk of running away. If they make it, they make it across the river into China, where there is a Korean-speaking area in the remote adjoining province. There they live under the constant threat of being forcibly repatriated. The fate of the fugitive slave is not pretty: North Korea does indeed operate a system of camps, most memorably described in a book—The Aquariums of Pyongyang, by Kang Chol-Hwan—that ought to be much more famous than it is. Given what everyday life in North Korea is like, I don't have sufficient imagination to guess what life in its prison system must be, but this book gives one a hint.
Hitchens mentions the book The Aquariums of Pyongyang, and notes it ought to be much more famous than it is. I agree. The book should have been a wake-up call to the world about what is happening to the North Korean people. I wrote here that the nuclear threat from North Korea has overshadowed the miserable existence of the North Koreans. China and South Korea are relatively silent on the situation in the North, out of fear I believe, of an influx of refugees. China routinely returns North Korean refugees who then face torture and if they are lucky, death.
The suffering of the North Korean people is unimaginable and nothing will change as long as Kim Jong-il is in control. Regime change is very unpopular these days, but what is a viable alternative to both eliminate the nuclear threat and the cruel and inhumane treatment of the North Koreans?