Nelson Mandela and the Heroes of Asia

The All School Meeting on December 11 was devoted to recognizing and remembering Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa, who fought to free the country from white minority rule, to achieve racial equality, and to fight against poverty and diseases. When he passed away in his home on December 5, 2013, people grieved for their loss.

Reflecting on Mandela’s accomplishments reminded me of other heroes, those in Asia, who are aiding North Koreans to cross the border into China and escape from North Korea’s repressive regime. A different type of heroes, but heroes nevertheless.

These heroes arise due to North Korea’s anti-humanitarian regime that denies its citizens the right to organize political movements, the right to free speech, the right to travel, the right to due process of law, and other rights that we enjoy. North Korea is also characterized by extreme famine, arbitrary arrest, and ill treatment and torture of its detainees. The extreme degree of human rights abuses has been confirmed by the United Nations Human Rights Council’s investigation of North Korea, established in March 2013.


The repressive North Korean regime began when Japan relinquished its right to control of the Korean peninsula in 1945, and Korea was broken into two. Kim Il-Sung became the head of North Korea and crushed other political parties and his rivals within his Korean Workers’ Party. Using propaganda, Kim Il-Sung created a militaristic, highly regimented society under the principle of ‘self-reliance.’ The North Korean government refrained from interaction with foreign countries other than China and the Soviet Union, and its economy grew in the 1950’s and 60’s but staggered when the food shortage hit in the early 1990’s. Many North Koreans lived in oblivion, thinking that their country was the richest in the world. Kim Il-Sung’s son, Kim Jong-Il, succeeded his father upon his death in 1994, and since his son Kim Jung-Un became the head of state in 2012, the poverty and hunger in North Korea have worsened. Also, more North Koreans are opening their eye to the wealth of the rest of the world because some North Koreans defectors have secretly returned to North Korea and told people what they had seen and because some North Koreans are illegally obtaining and watching South Korean dramas. With other countries pressuring North Korea to end uranium enrichment and missile testing, Kim Jung-Un is tightening his grip on power. He is arousing fear from the North Korean people by issuing “shoot-on-sight” orders to border guards to stop people from illegally crossing the northern border into China.

In this dangerous situation, thousands of North Koreans still escape to China, and many successfully arrive in South Korea to become its citizens. Many North Koreans defectors have shared their stories and experiences through news media, books, and TED Talks, helping to educate the world about the human rights abuses happening in North Korea. Bringing these facts to light has been made possible by South Koreans who are risking their lives to arrange escape plans with the North Koreans, plans that are kept secret for the security of future North Korean defectors; these South Koreans would be detained if caught by the Chinese government and possibly shot if seen by the North Korean guards. These South Koreans work for various organizations in South Korea such as the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights and the North Korean Human Rights Protection Association and help to rescue many people living in constant fear and poverty in North Korea.

As we reflect upon Nelson Mandela and how he strived for racial equality and the betterment of his country, we should also keep in mind that there are lesser known heroes around the world who are trying to improve human rights conditions in their region. North Korea is often referred to as the land where the worst human rights abuses are being practiced, but there is still hope because there are heroes who are risking their lives to secure  freedom for North Koreans.

Images: (top) Nelson Mandela, by ibrahima10 for openclipart, 2011; (right) the Korean Peninsula, 2011 map produced by the Central Intelligence Agency, reproduced via the Perry-Castaneda Library Map Collection of the University of Texas at Austin.

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