Sunday, December 8, 2013

How I Saw "The Hunger Games" Differently Living 90 miles from North Korea

On Friday, I finished reading the book Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West.

On Saturday, I saw The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

I saw the movie through teary eyes because I saw endless similarities between this movie and the real-life tragedy taking place in North Korea as we speak.

Escape from Camp 14 is about a man named Shin Dong-hyuk who was born in a prison camp in North Korea. Because of his uncle’s “sins” against the dynasty, the next three generations were required to suffer as a result and work in a prison camp. His first memory, at four years-old, is of an execution. 

He was born to parents who beat him and he merely saw as competitors for larger food rations. The author Blaine Harden writes, “Love and mercy and family were words without meaning. God did not disappear or die. Shin had never heard of him.” (3) He worked long, hard days and saw uncountable executions and rapes. When his own mother and brother planned an escape, Shin turned them into the guards because snitching was often rewarded with larger rations. He watched their executions without feeling.

The guards indoctrinated the people with propaganda about the world they wanted them to see. They were told that the South attacked the North starting the Korean War. That they were evil people who were living in desolation while the North Koreans apparently lived in luxury. He was told that America and other western countries were wicked killers. He had never eaten anything in his whole entire life but cabbage and corn porridge. He had never seen a map of the world, encountered a book, a radio, or a television until he bravely escaped to China in his twenties (the only North Korean born into a prison camp to do so and survive).

This true story paralleled with The Hunger Games was almost too much to take as I sat in the movie theatre. I just kept thinking, This is really happening.

There is a real place where one part of the country lives in extravagance while the other fights over an extra scrap of bread.

There is a real place where some are tortured and killed for speaking out and others are rewarded because they keep silent.

There is a real place where things like safety, health, education, and freedom are not even spoken of because they might as well not exist.

There is a real place where people are living in hell and we pay money to watch Hollywood’s rendition at the movies.

I don’t say these things with pride because I am doing anything meaningful for North Korea. I enjoyed reading The Hunger Games and I will likely see the third movie. But I think the only real education Hollywood can give us is when its movies draw our attention to real life complexity, instead of numbing us to it. And hopefully, as Maya Angelou says, “When you know better, you do better.”

North Korea is our modern-day Aushwitz.
Our modern-day Pol Pot.
Our modern-day Uganda.
This is the human rights injustice of our generation.

“North Korea’s labor camps have now existed twice as long as the Soviet Gulag and about twelve times longer than the Nazi concentration camps. There is no dispute about where these camps are. High-resolution satellite photographs, accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, show vast fenced compounds sprawling through the rugged mountains of North Korea.” (4)

There are likely about one hundred fifty thousand prisoners in the camps at this moment. The biggest camp is thirty-one miles long and twenty-five miles wide, larger than the city of Los Angeles. Western governments and human rights groups estimate that hundreds of thousands of people have perished in these camps.

The Washington Post published an editorial about North Korea saying, “High school students in America debate why President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t bomb the rail lines to Hitler’s camps. Their children may ask, a generation from now, why the West stared at far clearer satellite images of Kim Jong Il’s camps, and did nothing.”

It’s a little eerie and unsettling to be living only ninety miles away from North Korea. Not because I’m afraid, but because I’m heart-broken and unsure of what I can do to help. It’s also somewhat perplexing to see South Korea's somewhat indifferent response. I tried to relate thinking about what major social justice issue Americans have a tendency to side-step and I couldn’t think of anything.

But talking on Skype this weekend with a friend who works on an Indian Reservation in the States, I realized for the first time that there are numerous parallels between how American’s view Native Americans and how South Koreans view the North. It is not a secret to anyone in the States that an Indian reservation is not exactly heaven on earth. Alcoholism is a major problem that leads to violence and lawlessness, but rape is also a major epidemic along with poor health care and poverty.

And I think if most Americans were asked what to do about these problems, they would say what many South Koreans would say, “We know it’s horrible and heart-breaking, and yet, we don’t know what to do about it. They are their own nation. Is it really our job to get involved?”

And I get it. 
And I can relate. 
And I still don't know what to do about it.


Jazmine said...

Hard hitting and much needed post for me. Thanks, Heather.

Alicia Moodie said...

Heather. I'm glad I know you. :) And I'm glad I read your blog. It makes me think about things differently. Keep it up girlie!!