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When we talk about North Korea, we forget what’s happening to its people

When Min Jin Lee sees the latest headlines about nuclear weapons in North Korea, she thinks of her father, who fled the republic when he was 16, and lost touch with his family. And Lee thinks of not just the remains of her family still there, but the millions of people in that nation who are like hostages in their own land. Lee offers her humble opinion on having compassion for the people of North Korea.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The daily news about North Korea and its nuclear capabilities creates anxiety not just for Americans, but, of course, for people living in the region.

    Because so little is known about what happens inside North Korea, it is difficult for journalists to travel there. Most news stories center on the actions of its leader, Kim Jong-un.

    Tonight, writer and novelist Min Jin Lee offers her Humble Opinion on the enormous and the very human part of the story that we often miss.

  • Min Jin Lee:

    My father was born on Christmas Day in 1934. He grew up in what is now part of North Korea.

    When the Korean War began, my father was 16, and he found passage on an American refugee ship,thinking he'd be gone for just a few days, but he never saw his mother or his sister again.

    Somewhere behind the heavily secured 38th Parallel lives my family. My father never learned when his mother or sister died. My father's sister had a daughter, who is apparently alive, but I do not ever expect to meet my cousin.

    So, when I think about North Korea, I think about my father and what he lost. Imagine being 16, and because there is a war, you must leave your birthplace and never see your mother again. Imagine now knowing that she must be dead, based only on natural life expectancy, rather than on a real moment in time.

    Imagine if you didn't know that this was your last goodbye.

    Today, my cousin cannot leave her country. She can't travel within her own nation without permission, which is almost never granted.

    The nation assigns her a classification based on her family's loyalty to the state. She will not know her own classification, but it will determine where she lives, what she eats, where she works, and where her children go to school.

    She doesn't have the Internet or access to the most ordinary factual information. She doesn't have freedom of religion. And if she is caught with USB sticks of Korean soap operas or a copy of the Bible, she will be imprisoned, and the punishment will fall on three generations of her family.

    If my cousin tries to escape and failed, she can be shot. And if she defects and goes to China, she risks being sold as a slave by human traffickers.

    The same is true for even the most elite members of the North Korean government.

    So, when we consider North Korea, we respond to the messages of exactly one person, a young dictator about whom we know very little.

    Twenty-five million people who live in North Korea are denied freedom in every respect of their lives. In short, they are hostages. Imagine 25 million hostages.

    So, when I hear about nuclear weapons, like you, I am afraid. But we can also remember the democratic values we cherish. We can learn more about how we can help. And we can have compassion for our global brothers and sisters who are trapped in a dystopian invention not of their making.

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