Imagine a life of backbreaking labor, never enough to eat and performance drive by fear. This is the existence for prisoners in the North Korean political prisons or camps. Little information is available about life in North Korea, a nation that is choosing to fund its membership in the nuclear club instead of feed its people. It is a closed society, and ostensibly a classless one as well – that is the official position. But there is an elite, ruling class in North Korea, whose figurehead is Kim Jong Eun, raised as a communist prince, educated under an assumed name in Switzerland, and who despite a lack of military experience, was named a four-star general in 2010. His pedigree allows him to live above the law, because he essentially is the law.
At the far, opposite end of the spectrum is Shin-Dong-hyuk, whose story is told by Blaine Harden in “Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West.” Shin was one of, by South Korean estimates, 154,000 prisoners held in labor camps that have existed twice as long as the Soviet Gulag. Most prisoners are sent to these camps, but Shin was born there, in Camp 14. His world was one where “his mother beat him and he viewed her as a competitor for food. His father, who was allowed by guards to sleep with his mother for just five nights a year, ignored him. His brother was a stranger. Children in the camp were untrustworthy and abusive. Before he learned anything else, Shin learned to survive by snitching on them all.”
Members of civilized society are aghast at these conditions, but Shin didn’t know he should feel moral outrage over his condition – he knew no other existence. Life inside the camps existed of mandatory 12 to 15 hour workdays until prisoners die, as Harden shares, usually of malnutrition before they reach the age of 50. The “eating problem”, however, is not limited to labor camps. Millions of North Korean citizens are affected by it. So severe has this problem been during the last decade that teenage boys fleeing the North “are on average five inches shorter and weight 25 pounds less than boys growing up in South Korea.” According to the National Intelligence Council, mental retardation that results from early childhood malnutrition disqualifies about a quarter of potential military conscripts in North Korea.
Seeds of discontent sown in Shin’s soul were nurtured by an encounter with an older prisoner who came from the outside, having once been a citizen of some privilege. He told Shin stories about life beyond the camp and the borders of North Korea. While enjoying more freedoms surely motivated Shin to plot an escape, what drove him the most was the dream of having enough to eat, particularly more meat. Together, Shin and his fellow prisoner planned to escape, and the day came when they were put on a detail to gather firewood in a remote part of camp near the fence. Shin’s fellow prisoner was electrocuted attempting to get through the fence; Shin used his friend’s body as insulation to make it through the fence himself. Even though he was still in his own country, he was in an alien world. Miraculously, he found his way across the Chinese border and eventually to South Korea. He was the first known person born in a labor camp to have escaped.
There are many reactions to reading Shin’s story, one of which is indignation. How can a regime or its representatives treat its people so poorly? We live in a world where hardline communist regimes are clearly a failed experiment. Just from an economic perspective, the data doesn’t lie. As Harden shares, the average per capita income in South Korea is 15 times as high as in the North. Countries with higher per capita incomes than North Korea include Sudan, Congo and Laos. Even China, once the role model for repressive communist regimes, has lifted a billion of its people out of poverty by embracing free market reforms. China is now a reluctant ally of North Korea. The world is collectively yelling, “get a clue!” to North Korea but no one is listening.
North Korea survives because of ignorance and arrogance. The leaders are arrogant, parading around naked like the emperor wearing new clothes, believing the problem is with the rest of the world, not them. Ignorance of the truth keeps the masses in line. The proliferation of the Internet has made keeping people in the dark much harder. Even the presence of a single outsider who knows the truth is a threat to topple a regime. This form of governance is unsustainable, and history shows us that the ultimate fate is revolution, often violent. If only the leaders could study enough history to see the path they’re on, logic demands that they would change it. Arrogance, however, serves as a set of blinders that shields the obvious from those that most need to see it.
There’s a corporate version of this form of governance. As an example, consider the company Businessweek named as the meanest company in America in a recent article. Glassdoor.com publishes an annual list of the worst companies to work for. The descriptions of these companies all point to the same thing: dysfunctional leadership. An employee for one of these companies compared employment there to an exercise in tiptoeing around the CEO so as not to offend him. At another company, an employee described a culture of unilateral decision making by the CEO about even trivial operational matters that are better made two or three levels down the org chart. A poor economy can serve as a virtual electric fence, keeping employees in place out of fear.
Whether a corporation or a country, the view that getting the job done is more important than the people doing the work creates a cultural cesspool. The leadership strategy is always the same in these regimes, summed up by Kim Jong Il, member of the North Korean dictatorial dynasty: “We must envelope our environment in a dense fog to prevent our enemies from learning anything about us.” That list of enemies includes many of its own people.