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Artillery Row

Another day I would have died

How I watched James Bond in North Korea and lived to tell the tale

I will never forget my first James Bond film. It is a rite of passage for many young men in the UK, but for a 15-year-old living in North Korea, it was triply magical — truly forbidden fruit.

My friend DongGuk would bring contraband like this into the town. (He was later sent to a labour camp and died of a serious illness.) We drew every curtain and inserted the VHS of Die Another Day into the machine.

I was so excited and shocked by what I had seen that I told one of my friends. A big mistake: he reported me to the police, and I was hauled into the station to give an account of what I had done. My punishment was “forced labour”: many hours of work chopping wood and cleaning the local police station for a few days.

I mention this because things have changed drastically in North Korea now — the country of my birth and the place I finally escaped from about seventeen years ago.

News recently made its way into the outside world that two teenagers had been publicly executed by the regime. Their crime? They had watched and shared the South Korean drama Squid Game. We can be very sure that executions like this are not a rare occurrence in the country.

The boys were victims of North Korea’s infamous new “Anti-Reactionary Thought Laws”, drafted in 2021 and rolled out last year. The substance of the legislation is incredibly vague — encouraging citizens to “firmly maintain our ideas, spirit and culture, and it defines a wide range of acts as treason. It can be used to police pretty much anything the authorities don’t like: your clothes, the length of your hair, or even the way you speak. 

Anyone can be shot dead on the spot

Of course, watching or reading subversive material like Die Another Day or Squid Game is deeply “unpatriotic”. In short, if I had been stupid enough to boast of my illicit film nights under the new regime, I would most likely be dead or sent to a gulag by now.

If that had happened, it is very unlikely that you would have heard anything about it in the West. Although the teenagers were publicly executed, one of the “freedoms” the new laws give to the local police is that they can administer their own instant justice without a trial. Anyone can be shot dead on the spot. It gives those with a grudge against their neighbours the chance to report them and settle scores — regardless of whether the accusation is true or not.

I mention all this because I think many people in the West tend to view North Korea as little more than an amusing anomaly. It has always been a bit totalitarian, we reason, and it always will be. There’s nothing much we can do about it anyway … 

North Korea has long been a prison state and virtually all of its population of 25 million are locked in a large cage, imprisoned, regardless of whether they express an “anti-reactionary” thought. As the brutal killing of the two teenagers illustrates, the depths to which the state is willing to sink, in order to maintain its dark, corrupted power, have no bottom.

I work for the charity Open Doors, speaking up about the treatment meted out to the nation’s hugely secretive Christian community when they are discovered. We have just published our annual World Watch List of nations where Christians face the most severe persecution and discrimination.

For the nineteenth time in twenty years, North Korea is number one. There’s nothing static about the severity of persecution though: this year, the numerical persecution score, based on a number of indices of persecution, is the highest it has ever been. It is the highest persecution score for any nation in the list’s thirty year history.

Elites are terrified there could be an Iranian-style uprising

Even for innocent family members of the young men who knew nothing about the contraband film, the punishment is likely to be execution or life in one of the country’s inhumane prison camps, where prisoners face beatings, rape, torture and back-breaking labour.

If you think the regime is vexed about James Bond and Squid Game, the paranoia they have about someone owning a simple Bible is off the scale. The reason is simple: the Bible speaks of the true God, and that directly undermines the Kim dynasty’s claim that they are eternal gods. 

Kim Jong-un and his elites have spent the Covid years tightening their grip on the nation and plugging holes in its porous borders to the outside world. They are terrified there could be an Iranian-style uprising, undermining their authority and bringing down their regime.

As people have discovered, it is hard, but not impossible to breach the wall of secrecy separating the nation of North Korea from the outside world. If prison doors can’t open from inside, the door opens from outside.

Meanwhile, we need to stop viewing the nation as an amusing freak-show exhibit. The elites are treating their citizens with unspeakable cruelty to maintain their grip on power. It is time to join me and speak out to your MPs and other representatives. They in turn can apply pressure on the UN Security Council and Human Rights Council to heap pressure on the regime and its neighbour China.

If the media breaks the story of a child or domestic slave kept locked away from the outside world for years, threatened with dire punishments for the tiniest infractions, we are rightly shocked to the core. “How could we let this happen in 2023?” we wonder aloud. Now multiply that abuse by millions. Now, more than ever, is not a time to pass by on the other side of the road.

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