// Vicky Qiao
“World War 3: North Korea nuclear strike would be ‘disaster’”,”North Korea gets ready to test nuclear missile”, “North Korea vows to shoot down U.S. planes”
It is hard not to encounter a news headline featuring North Korea. Seemingly overnight, the small country of North Korea has come into the spotlight. It is portrayed on the world stage as a dangerous character, ready to make a dramatic plot twist anytime. The country’s dictator, Kim-Jung-Un, has become one of the most ridiculed political leaders in current media discourse. With his signature dead stare, double chin, and strictly parted hair, Kim-Jung-Un has been a popular subject of memes. All social media sites have content making fun of Kim, as well as his faithful people who worship him as their Great Leader, Saviour, and even God. Numbed and obsolete, the North Koreans are often portrayed as strange beings without any capacity for individual thought and critical reasoning.
Recently, an interview conducted in Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea, went viral on Facebook and Youtube due to John Oliver’s profile on North Korea on Last Week Tonight. When asked about her opinion on Barack Obama, the past president of the U.S., a North Korean woman responded with a harmless smile, “If he is standing right here, I will shoot him.” People on social media mocked this “savage lady” for proposing a death threat with such calmness and casualness. But have you thought of the reasoning behind her answer? She might have never spoken to a foreign reporter before. She might know nothing about Obama, but was made to believe that all Americans are evil. She might have been aware of a hidden camera set up by the North Korean government. She knows that if she did not say what she said, they might have shot her.
We live in a fairly democratic society, yet we continue to fight for our rights. As students, we strive to get our voice heard by the school board; as citizens, we ask the government for improved policies on social benefits and the environment. The degree to which the North Koreans are oppressed and silenced by their dictatorship is far beyond our imagination as Canadians. They are deprived of the basic human rights we take for granted – freedom of opinion and information, freedom from torture, right to social security and a decent living standard. We must remember that their “ignorance” is rooted in their total isolation from the rest of the world, their abolished rights to acquire knowledge, and the systematic propaganda, if not blatant lies, that perpetuate their entire lives.
However, even the lack of basic rights seem minor in the overall North Korean human crisis, where poverty and hunger remain the largest issues that affect the citizens’ lives. According to 2007 data, 33% (or 7.8 million) of the North Korean population were malnourished. Starved and impoverished, people pick wild fruits, grass roots, and tree bark to cope with the daily hunger. Adults in poor households choose to skip lunch and eat only two meals per day. Their digestive systems are often irreparably damaged due to long-term starvation, failing to properly absorb nutrients even if given nutritious diet. A nation-wide drought this year has severed the food security crisis; meanwhile, food prices have reached a historical-high – 2000 Won for one kilogram of rice and 5500 Won for one kilogram of pork (the average monthly income of a North Korean is 6000 Won).
Many of us may not be aware of the correlation between North Korea’s hunger crisis and its military aggression. The regime has been devoting most of its money on the development of nuclear weapons instead of its citizens’ welfare. As a country consisting of merely 23 million people, North Korea has 1 million soldiers in the regular army and 3.5 million in armed forces. In 2016, the total military expense of North Korea amounted to 1.6 billion US dollars, accounting for 40% of the country’s total GDP. The enormous amount of military expenses is among the top factors that contribute to the country’s poverty and hunger, directly contributing to the human crisis.
Memes are funny and they make our lives so much better. But it is hard to laugh at the North Korean memes when I know the stories behind them – the tyranny, the struggle, the danger. Funny portrayals of Kim Jong Un often mask the real issue by drawing humourous media attention. It is a humanitarian crisis, a world problem, and I encourage us all to look deeper into the issue. After all, the first step to change is to be aware and sympathize.
If you want to learn more about the human crisis from a North Korean perspective, Ellie Cha – a North Korean refugee – is coming to Western to speak about her journey and various struggles that she has come across. The event is taking place on October 16th as part of HanVoice’s Pioneer Project. You can follow Hanvoice Western’s Facebook page for upcoming information.