Steve Sachs Duke


Wednesday, October 15, 2003


Mass Delusion on the Korean Peninsula: Few recent newspaper articles are more disturbing than this Washington Post report from back in September, which I recently re-read. How is it that only 9 percent of citizens consider the possession of nuclear weapons by a secretive, isolated dictator--whose policies are directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of his countrymen and whose government frequently threatens to unleash "a sea of fire" on its enemies--to be "a major government concern"?

In my copious free time, I've just finished reading The Aquariums of Pyongyang, an account of the North Korean gulag system by an escaped survivor (recommended here). It's a heartbreaking book, and the conditions it describes of deprivation, barbed wire and prison camps are depressingly similar to those created by totalitarian regimes in Europe. The managers of the Yodok camp borrow methods directly from the Nazis and the Soviets--forcing inmates to act as informers, turning them against each other, manipulating them through their own fear and hunger--to dehumanize the prisoners and subject them to the most severe physical and psychological torture.

I almost wrote "borrowed" there, but there's no reason to put things in the past tense. As Tacitus notes, these camps are still operating today, and if anything the situation is probably more desperate--this being a time of famine--than it was when Kang Chol-Hwan was imprisoned in the late 1980s. From a European perspective, concentration camps are a creature of the 20th Century, not the 21st. It's hard to remember that they exist not only in black-and-white History Channel documentaries, but in a modern age with real people inside them. It's even harder to remember that the starvation in these camps, as well as the famine sweeping the larger prison Kim Jong-Il's regime has become, are not the result of forces of nature. The evil wrought there is entirely manmade.

I'm not asking for the use of military force to open the camps (although it was hard to read of Yodok's terrors without remembering the calls to bomb Auschwitz, without wanting to end them now). At least, I'm not asking yet. But I can't help remembering how, after each new set of concentration camps was opened in Europe, the world made a resolution of "Never Again." We took our videos and aired the documentaries, we admitted how much we had known all along, and we declared that in the future, such injustices would not stand, the pleas of innocents would not be ignored, the nations of the world would intervene.

Well, here are the camps. Here is a genuine case of a prison regime, a ruling clique that retains power only through the cruelest oppression of its people. Here is a militarist dictatorship that poses a grave security threat--perhaps one of the greatest of the last decade--to the nations of Asia and peace-loving people the world over. Why is this not a dominant topic of world politics, a major focus of concern? Why is Halliburton getting more air time than the suffering of millions?

Even if there are few good options in North Korea--and I'd be the first to admit it--that still doesn't answer why we haven't put more effort into finding the best of them. The energy that was displayed when millions took to the streets last spring was dissipated in a fruitless cause; could it not be channeled into more productive use? Couldn't a world movement--especially one ostensibly concerned about freedom--spend less time protesting the violent removal of one Stalinist, and more time planning the peaceful removal of another?

Yet the experience of South Korea, as described by the Post, makes me begin to lose hope. What's truly startling about the end of Kang's book is the kind of reception he's received in the South--where college students accused him of parroting the government line. At first, I found it unfathomable that those most suspicious of "propaganda" would trust a regime from which starving people routinely risk their lives to escape. (If pictures of George W. Bush were hung in every American home, if every popular song referenced his name, if schoolchildren were taught miraculous accounts of his birth, would the pronouncements of his government be treated with similar respect?) But having read the Post article, it's become more understandable to me now. Denying that any of this represents "a major government concern" is much easier than accepting how dangerous, and how evil, the world really is.

I think I'm starting to understand something else now, too--why it was so easy for Hitler to rise to power, and to begin his aggression unchallenged. Never underestimate the capacity for self-delusion of a threatened nation that honestly desires peace.




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