North Korea to launch first military satellite
North Korea is the Hermit Kingdom, the world’s last fully-fledged autocracy. It is presided over by Kim Jong-un, the 39-year-old Supreme Leader who controls every minute detail of his people, from their being able to travel and wear leather coats, to their food supplies and choice of haircut.
No one can leave North Korea, and very few can enter. But there are rumbles, murmurs that things might be changing.
North Koreans have lived well below the poverty line for decades. The country’s infamous famine lasted for four years between 1994 and 1998 and is perhaps one of the most gruesome and heartbreaking tales of a struggle for survival, one which saw stories of cannibalism and pure desperation.
The country is at a turning point. Its economy continues to shrink, shortages of crucial items grow, and the population is no longer entirely ignorant of the outside world thanks to the advent of the internet and social media — despite those things being controlled by the state — and increased efforts by neighbours to expose their former compatriots to life outside.
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In 2020, North Korea further cut itself off from the world after the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. It sent an already isolated country into the depths of the backwaters.
A recent BBC investigation found that the situation in the country is the worst it has been since the Nineties and the fateful famine, with vital supply routes cut off and increased interference in people’s lives widespread.
Three ordinary people were secretly interviewed by the broadcaster with the help of the publication Daily NK, which collaborates with a network of sources in the country.
The North Koreans spoke of fear they will either starve to death, as did their ancestors or be executed for even the smallest flouting of the rules. Some even admitted they longed for an attack by the US in order to put an end to the tyrannical regime.
Among the people interviewed included a woman living in Pyongyang, the capital, a construction worker living near the Chinese border, and a market trader in the north of the country.
The woman in Pyongyang said she knew a family of three who had starved to death in their home.
Given the name Ji Yeon to protect her identity, she said: “We knocked on their door to give them water, but nobody answered.” The authorities were called and went inside to find the family dead.
Chan Ho, the construction worker, who was also given a fake name, said food supplies were so scarce that five people in his village had died from starvation.
“At first, I was afraid of dying from Covid,” he said. “But then I began to worry about starving to death.”
In 2020, North Korea stopped importing grain from China. It also stopped buying fertilisers and machinery needed to grow food.
It is not entirely clear if Pyongyang is truly desperate for money, as reports suggest Russia has secured deals with the country for things like commercial aircraft, raw materials and commodities in exchange for weapons and munitions.
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These goods, however, seem not to be reaching those in need. Kim continues to pump money into North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, with 2022 witnessing a record number of missile tests.
Myong Suk, the market trader, used to own a relatively booming medicine business, earning enough to keep herself afloat.
She now struggles to feed herself and her family, so started to sell smuggled medicines. It would prove to be the biggest risk of her life.
She was caught and had to bribe an official “with money I didn’t have — I barely got away with it,” she told the investigation.
With new clampdowns, Myong Suk has been monitored by the state ever since.
In what is a blunt yet risky admission, Chan Ho, the construction worker, blamed the international community for not challenging Kim, going as far as to say that he wished the US would attack his country.
He said: “The US and UN seem half-witted […] Only with a war, and by getting rid of the entire leadership, can we survive. Let’s end this one way or another.”
Myong Suk agreed: “If there was a war, people would turn their backs on our government. That’s the reality.”
However, Ji Yeon, the woman who lives in Pyongyang, wanted nothing more than to live in a society that didn’t go hungry and didn’t spy on one another.
Governments around the world have done little in the way of communicating with Kim. The most progress was made under former President Donald Trump when he visited the demilitarised zone in 2019, in the process becoming the first sitting president to enter North Korea.
While many at the time believed it could be the moment North Koreans were granted greater freedoms, others claimed it was simply a PR stunt for Mr Trump that bore little for the country’s people. The visit was fleeting and no progress was made in its aftermath.
North Korea has few if any allies. It has ties to 164 independent states, but China is recognised as perhaps its only real and significant partner, the pair sharing an 840-mile-long border. Even then, many say China only puts up with North Korea rather than encourages it.
Wang Chenjun and Richard McGregor, writing for the interpreter, said a combination of China’s desire for peace and stability, tensions with the US in Taiwan, the uncertainty of South Korea’s position, and competition with Washington are all factors Beijing considers when propping up the Hermit Kingdom.
Sokeel Park, who represents the Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) group, which supports North Korean escapees, said there is a “devastating tragedy unfolding” in the country. For now, North Koreans struggle to survive the day-to-day, unable to look to the future.
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