October 16, 2006 | Commentary on Asia
As many problems as North Korea's Stalinist dictatorship makes for the rest of the world, what it inflicts upon its captive population is far, far worse. Life in Kim Jong Il's iron-fisted police state is a hellish nightmare.
It's the most repressive country on earth, under absolute control of "Dear Leader" Kim. Fear, intimidation and wild-eyed propaganda dominate every aspect of society.
From outside, it can seem comical - like Pyongyang's recent boast that Kim had fired 11 holes in one - in 11 holes, of course - the first time he played golf. Somehow, that whopper was supposed to boost the tyrant's image.
But let's take a peek behind Kim's Iron Curtain.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported in 2005: "There are virtually no personal freedoms in North Korea." Indeed, any and all civil liberties are considered a threat to the regime.
Radios and TVs are hard-wired to pre-set frequencies, over which North Koreans are subjected to constant propaganda, martial music, or B-grade Korean War flicks (this time, they win.) All homes display pictures of the "Dear Leader" and his father, "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung.
Crimes in "Kim-land" include defecting (or just trying), slandering Kim or the government, listening to foreign broadcasts, reading "subversive" material - even sitting on a newspaper that displays Kim's picture.
Failure to play by the rules can mean a bullet to the back of the head or time in one of Kim's seven political gulags, hard-labor camps that hold more than 200,000 men, women and children. The North Korean Freedom Coalition estimates that 400,000 to 1 million political prisoners have perished, some in gas chambers, in these camps since they were set up in 1972.
The regime has been accused of using political prisoners as guinea pigs in medical experiments. Public executions of tortured prisoners aren't uncommon.
One former North Korean prison guard who defected said: "They trained me not to treat the prisoners as human beings . . . beating and killing is an everyday affair . . . they're just like dogs or pigs."
A single person's offense can get an entire family - sometimes up to three generations - sent to the gulag. Female prisoners, who become pregnant - sometimes due to rape by prison guards - often undergo forced abortions. Infanticide, at the hands of guards, takes place, too.
Making matters worse, North Korea has been fighting a famine since 1995. Natural disasters such as annual floods account for some of the food shortages, but most is due to failed agricultural and economic policies.
As a result, as many as 2.5 million people (out of a population of 22 million) have died due to starvation/disease over the last decade. While accurate numbers are near impossible to come by, today , 7 percent are believed to be starving, and 37 percent chronically malnourished, reports Freedom House.
Even more tragic, many children born during the famine have been orphaned - and suffer from mental/physical handicaps due to severe malnutrition early in life. Defectors report cases of cannibalism.
And while North Korea has received massive influxes of international food aid, relief groups say Pyongyang uses food as a weapon, directing aid to the most loyal segments of society, while withholding it from others. People have subsisted on twigs, bark and grass for years. Local cooperatives mix grass with grain to produce horrid, drab olive "Franken-food."
As many as 300,000 North Koreans have fled to northern China. But Beijing won't let relief groups assist them (for fear of encouraging others), so refugees are victimized by locals into near-slavery or prostitution or returned as criminals - to an almost certain death sentence.
And while common people starve, the elite spends millions on luxuries. Kim's cognac bill is $500,000 a year. When he has a craving, he sends his personal chef abroad to fetch his favorite nosh. And then there's Dear Leader's female "happiness teams."
North Korea spends one-third of its gross domestic product on a million-man army, ballistic missiles and an expensive nuclear-weapons program, while the country's hospitals , desperately short of supplies, are little more than hospices .
The regime may now have a nuke, but it's had a weapon of mass destruction for years. Unfortunately for the North Korean people, that WMD is their "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il.
Peter Brookes, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."
First appeared in The New York Post