This article was originally published by Asia Times.
North Korea’s leader approached the raised concrete dividing line on the 38th Parallel, paused for photos, shook the South Korean president’s hand with a smile and stepped over it for the first time last Friday.
On the South Korean side of the truce village Panmunjom, the leaders of the Korean Peninsula had an eventful day. They joked, ate meals, introduced family, planted trees, and negotiated a time frame to end the Korean War – all under the stipulation of a nuclear-free Korea.
April 27 was undoubtedly a historic day with sure signs of easing tensions. But it’s easy to get lost in the theatrics of the two leaders holding hands and smiling for the cameras. The idea of reunification can eclipse the grim reality that the North Koreans outside the Peace House of the truce village face on a daily basis.
Lately, media coverage of Kim Jong-un has undergone a drastic reversal surrounding the inter-Korean peace talks, but make no mistake: North Koreans are living in destitution under the tyrannical Kim regime.
Think back. Headlines such as The Wall Street Journal’s “Kim Jong Un says he has a nuclear launch button on his office desk” rang in the New Year just a few short months ago. Other headlines honed in on the tension between Kim and US President Donald Trump and often portrayed Kim as unstable.
The threat of nuclear war was daily.
But that was before North Korea’s charm offensive. Before the Winter Olympics, where Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, stole the show by hand-delivering an invitation to South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in. Before Kim Jong-un made his first-ever state visit to China. And before Kim held flowers and posed with schoolchildren in South Korea.
In a little over four months, Kim Jong-un has gone from “Little Rocket Man” to charming (or at least cunning) diplomat. While some meaningful gains toward peace are on the horizon, the suffering of the people of North Korea must be taken into consideration in future talks. We must not let the idea of political progress overshadow the horrendous human-rights abuses committed by the Kim family.
In February, North Korean defectors and refugees made the severity of those abuses very clear. They recounted harrowing stories about their past lives in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as part of an English speech contest in Seoul hosted by Teach North Korean Refugees.
Many recurring elements surfaced in their speeches: constant fear, hunger, deprivation and families being torn apart.
“Do you know what it’s like growing up not knowing what your parents look like?” one refugee said in her speech.
Some lucky North Korean parents are able to work in China to support their families back home. From China is where most refugees defect as well. If caught trying to escape to a third country (outside the DPRK and China), North Koreans risk up to 10 years in special political prisons.
According to Human Rights Watch, North Korean prison compounds enslave hundreds of thousands of people, children included. Detainees face starvation, sexual abuse, forced labor and other forms of torture, HRW’s World Report concluded.
Outside of prison, conditions aren’t much better. Satellite imagery from the International Space Station shows burn scars from agricultural fires plaguing the land. Outside the capital, Pyongyang, the country is blacked out. Electricity is rare, let alone Internet access.
So it isn’t hard to imagine why many North Korean refugees and defectors aren’t buying Kim Jong-un’s makeover.
“North Korea is a wasteland of human rights, and it is so disappointing that Kim is being taken seriously,” Na Min-hee, an outspoken DPRK defector, told Express.
Back in Panmunjom truce village, after the media swarm died down, and pledges for peace were made, Kim Jong-un was able to cross back over the armistice line and return to his home and family.
But let’s not forget that the last time a North Korean crossed that line, it was a young, scared soldier. He wasn’t met with applause and flashes of the camera but more than 40 rounds of gunfire as he fled for his life.