On Sunday, Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes aired a feature piece on the life of Shin Dong-hyuk, a North Korean defector who was born and raised in the North Korean labor internment camp known as Camp 14.
In the piece, Cooper asked Shin Dong-hyuk about his previous life in Camp 14 and what motivated him to defect. Shin's family was originally placed in the camp because two of his family members defected to South Korea. In North Korea, Kim Jong-il originally established a rule called "three generations of punishment" in order to purge those who are disloyal in fears that if one family member defects, the entire family is corrupted.
More surprisingly, rather than defecting out of fear or oppression, Shin Dong-hyuk told 60 Minutes that he defected out of starvation. After meeting another prisoner who had tasted real food rather than eating kernels of corn and wheat, Shin was motivated to defect for food and a place anywhere outside of Camp 14 that he calls "heaven."
Today, Shin has made a new life for himself in South Korea as a human rights activist by creating an internet talk show called "Inside NK," which regularly discusses the lack of human rights in North Korea, and has been documented in a biography by author Blaine Harden in a book titled Escape from Camp 14.
But why does it seem that North Korean human rights is a subject rarely talked about?
1. Nuclear proliferation, military parades, and the personality cult are sensational issues
Not shockingly, Google trends data has shown that within the past few years, North Korea is only a topic of interest whenever it either launches a long-range missile or more recently has sparked reader interest at the death of Kim Jong-il and his son's power struggle within the regime. The media continues to give the Kim regime what they want by reporting on nuclear issues or Kim Jong-un's marriage rather than focusing on blatant human rights abuses that continue to show no signs of improvement.
2. There is an information gap because no one is allowed to see these political prisoner camps
Although South Korean researchers have conducted tens of thousands of interviews of North Korean refugees, and various human rights organizations in the United States have worked on promoting knowledge of human rights abuses, the simple truth is that no one, other than defectors, have actually seen the camps themselves in person. Human rights organizations in the U.S. have focused on using defector accounts, satellite imagery, and policy conferences to address further action.
3. No one really cares — North Korea is on the backburner of truly important issues to Americans
Simply put, compared to the domestic issues like the recent "fiscal cliff," and the various conflicts in the Middle East, North Korea isn't a hot button issue. North Korea has been strategically phased out of President Obama's State of the Union and the U.S. continues to maintain a status quo. Although President Bush spoke about North Korea quite often, he furthered damaged U.S.-DPRK relations by placing North Korea on the "axis of evil."
Anderson Cooper's recent piece is a step in the right direction considering CBS' 60 Minutes has a weekly audience of 13 million viewers. However, it is up to the media to continue to highlight North Korean human rights abuses in order for human rights to be at the forefront of the public discussion.