North Korea By Maureen Callahan January 11, 2014 | 2:28pm
Starving in the Countryside
It (defecting from North Korea) is a treacherous undertaking: those who do not freeze to death might starve to death or be caught and turned back to face execution. Women defectors are highly vulnerable to sex trafficking.
“It is rampant,” says Tim Peters, founder of the aid group Helping Hands Korea. “North Korean women are so helpless — they cannot speak the language. They are without documents. There is the lack of a criminal-justice system in China, and the traffickers run wild. If the women aren’t sold to the sex trade, they are, equally as dangerously, sold as brides to Chinese men.”
But life inside North Korea is so desperate, Peters says, that they’re willing to take the risk. “They think, ‘If I’m a bride, at least I’ll have enough to eat.’”
Wonder at the Outside World
Once beyond the confines of the Hermit Kingdom, North Koreans cannot believe what the outside world has to offer. Unfamiliar with modern plumbing, they don’t know how to flush toilets. Water that runs all day, every day, astonishes, as does the abundance of food.
And then comes the larger realization: These people have freedoms.
“I have sat with refugees in farmhouses on the Chinese border, and they’re watching South Korean TV, and they see cellphones and fashion and washing machines, and their jaws hang open,” says Demick.
“Even a short while in China,” says Peters, “makes it clear how grossly they’ve been lied to their entire lives.”
Meanwhile, what must North Koreans, the most homogenous society in the world, make of this nearly 7-foot tall pierced, tattooed, boa-wearing basketball player, probably the first black man and American they’ve seen in person?
“North Koreans would highlight the suffering of blacks in America, and say ‘Here is a disaffected black American who has suffered,’ ” Peters says. “There is a reason they want to put him in the state-run narrative, but the rank and file would be extremely puzzled.”
And Kim’s basketball diplomacy isn’t going to be enough to staunch the flight of young people, who increasingly suspect the world outside must be better than within.
“Kim Jong-un has made it clear that even though his father was brutal, he will be even worse,” Peters says. “And his father was a very cruel man.”