Religion & Liberty Online

North Korea: ‘Time Has Come to a Standstill’


North Korea has lately been featured in dozens of news articles about a recent United Nations report on human rights abuses and now thanks to a new photo from NASA. The photo above was just released — taken from the International Space Station. While the surrounding countries are twinkling with light, North Korea is completely blacked out save for a small dot that is Pyongyang.  U.S. News & World Report lists some of the unpleasant facts of life in North Korea, including frequent power outages:

– One-third of children are stunted, due to malnutrition, according to the World Food Program.

– The average life expectancy, 69, has fallen by five years since the early 1980s, according to the blog North Korea Economy Watch. The blog notes that those figures are based on official statistics, so the real numbers could be even lower.

– Inflation may be as high as 100 percent, due to mismanagement of the currency.

– Most workers earn $2 to $3 per month in pay from the government. Some work on the side or sell goods in local markets, earning an extra $10 per month or so.

– Most homes and apartments are heated by open fireplaces burning wood or briquettes. Many lack flush toilets.

– Electric power is sporadic and unreliable, with homes that have electricity often receiving power just a few hours per day.

North Korea, 20 years ago

This recent photo is very similar to one taken two decades ago. Marketwatch compares the two images:

 [W]hat is even more startling is the lack of progress when the latest image is compared with the one taken 20 years ago. Even as areas in South Korea and China are awash in light, the darkness that envelops North Korea remains untouched. Time has come to a standstill in North Korea.

Acton President and co-founder, Rev. Robert Sirico, also comments on this photo on the very first page of Defending the Free Market:

Have you ever seen a photograph of the earth at night? Lights are scattered across the globe, wherever human beings live and work and prosper. But there is a strange blank shape at the top of the Korean peninsula, all the more remarkable because the lower half of the peninsula, South Korea, is a blaze of luminosity. The dark patch above it is socialist North Korea, where the people live in such desperate poverty that their country is dark at night. The one tiny point of light is Pyongyang, where party elites enjoy the fruits of the miserable labor of the North Korean people, who are essentially slaves. Otherwise, North Korea is simply dark.

The illuminated lower half of the peninsula offers us a vision of what the world looks like with freedom—the freedom to create, prosper, and, as is so obvious, even to illuminate. But you also have in that photograph an image of what the world might look like were the torch of human liberty to sputter out, casting civilization into darkness.

North Korea isn’t just dark, it’s also a dangerous place to live. The United Nations’ report goes so far as to say that the North Korean government’s actions are “strikingly similar to those perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II.” Soon after this report came out, NBC News ran a story describing the atrocities occurring daily in the prison camps. It quotes Hyuk Kim, a 16-year-old vagabond who was arrested in 1998 for attempting to cross into China for food. When he was caught he was sent to the Jungeori Labor Camp for 3 years. He describes it:

At Jungeori, there was no sense of being human, if you thought you were a human being, you couldn’t live there,” said Kim, who is now aged 33. “You were like an animal. You do the hard labor you were ordered to do, that’s it. No thinking. No free will. Just fear.

Kim went on to describe the miniscule amounts of food he received and the cruelty of the guards; North Koreans who have more recently experienced the camp say that conditions have worsened. The country is developing far slower than the rest of the world, the labor camps are inhumane, and religious persecution, especially of Christians, is widespread. Howard Friedman shares an important fact from the report on human rights abuses in North Korea:

The State considers the spread of Christianity a particularly serious threat, since it challenges ideologically the official personality cult and provides a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the realm of the State. Apart from the few organized State-controlled churches, Christians are prohibited from practising their religion and are persecuted. People caught practising Christianity are subject to severe punishments in violation of the right to freedom of religion and the prohibition of religious discrimination.

The situation in North Korea is atrocious, but much of the rest of the world respects human dignity and allows human flourishing. So while North Korea remains in the dark, the rest of the world is developing, thriving, and twinkling away at night: