A Glimpse into the Lives of the Women of the Coalition for North Korean Women’s Rights

Journey for Survival: A Report on Female North Korean Refugees and Human Trafficking published by the Coalition for North Korean Women’s Rights gives a look into individual women’s experiences of hardship in their struggles to find hope. Along with an in-depth account of the state of affairs in North Korea, Journey for Survival provides its readers with direct quotes from the hundreds of women of the coalition working to spread word of their own trials in order to protect the human rights of thousands more struggling in North Korea or journeying to South Korea.

Although the West generally sees North Korea as altogether a crumbling empire, diversity of lifestyle still exists, dividing the people into different classes. Most of the first refugees leaving North Korea after the famines and economic troubles came from the lowest classes at the border; one such woman of the lowest rung of society describes the extent of her poverty in Journey for Survival,

“I would go to the market (jangmadang), pick up food garbage from the streets, and eat it. If that wasn’t enough, I would even steal food. When I was caught stealing, I got beat up and had bruises all over my body. I was always in pain. I had no place to lay my head; I would spend nights in front of a station, under a bridge, even right next to a corpse” Interview 21, (Journey for Survival, 39).

This woman reveals that there is no one to protect her – she is homeless and alone in the Fatherland. Without enough to eat, she has been degraded to the very humiliating act of eating the trash of the more affluent. It is a wonder she is able to find much in the trash to begin with considering North Korea has been notorious for a lack of food for decades and there are hundreds more as hungry as she is. How much more can someone from the more wealthy classes have than the amount necessary to get through the day if news of the poverty of the common man has become so widespread? Who can afford not to eat everything that comes his or her way? And how much can this woman or any other man or woman find edible in the trashcans of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? The words of another woman interviewed in the coalition provide a few answers to these questions. Speaking about the conditions of those around her during the hard time, the woman says,

“Even rich people had difficulties in North Korea. Those who traded foreign currencies could afford to have two meals a day. The problem was, whether people made money or not, they were forced to make donations to their companies” Interview 27 (47).

It would appear that the difference between the extremely poor and the more affluent is a couple of meals a day. Regardless of what anyone makes, loyalty to the party works against them in taking away the resources they have to obtain more food. With the wealthier North Koreans responsible to the higher officials, it is no wonder that no one spares anything for the more fortunate below them. It is a difficult society that makes it difficult for small acts of kindness since everyone struggles. With life as difficult as it is, another one of the interviewees mentions,

“My neighbors often said we’d be better off if war just broke out. Whether we die or live, what’s the point of us living like this? When South Koreans are rich…Every time we got together we’d talk about this” Interview 61, (42).

Her words reveal the utter despair that rests in many of the hearts of the North Korean people. She alludes to the growing difference between North Korean and South Korean society, emphasizing that with life as hard as it is for most North Korean people, many believe that it would be better for violence to set an end to that lifestyle once and for all regardless of what happens to the North Korean people. Hopefully it will never have to come to that point. Hopefully, as more people learn about the struggles of the North Korean people, compassion will NOTlet the differences between life in North and South Korea forever divide the North and South Korean people apart even after the peaceful unification of the Korean peninsula.

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