I remember being in the fourth grade and sitting in Mrs. Dillard’s room watching a film about the Holocaust. I remember seeing footage of repurposed agricultural equipment moving literal bucketloads of gassed Jews’ corpses around like dirt, filling huge mass graves with them.
It was the first time I saw such vivid and graphic imagery of the horrors of the Third Reich. It definitely stuck with me. And yet, I feel it far more horribly today than I did then. For one thing, I can look back and realize that when I was watching that film, I was watching something that happened only 35 years earlier. Well, now I can remember things—lots of things—that happened 35 years ago. It’s not such a long time, you know?
For another, I think parenthood brings devastating perspective to it. Imagining these atrocities visited upon ourselves is nothing compared to imagining them happening to our children.
We say “never again” because it’s what we say. But, as Jonah Goldberg wrote in a 2009 piece that I credit with sparking my sustained interest in North Korea, we must not mean it.
I don’t know that enough folks walking around grasp the true nature of North Korea. It makes headlines for its nuclear weapons program, but it should, much more, for its shameful and severe human rights abuses. It’s not a place where really bad things happen to a few people. It’s a place where really bad things happen to nearly everyone, and unspeakably horrible things happen to a lot of those.
The world has never seen a cult of personality to rival that around Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il before him, and Kim Il-sung before him. Question their supreme leadership—either outright, or by doing something foolish like owning a radio that receives other than state-approved frequencies—and you could find yourself in one of the dozens of prison or reeducation camps filling the valleys of the mountainous terrain. Your kids and their kids will probably go, too.
North Korea officially denies the existence of these camps, either outright or by claiming gross misrepresentation of their purposes. (This denial continues despite satellite photography and ample testimony of people who actually made it out.) Several hundred thousand people are held. Some die every day. More arrive every day. Starvation, torture, infanticide, rape, public execution—all commonplace.
About a year ago I read The Aquariums of Pyongyang. The author, Kang Chol-hwan, beginning at age nine, spent ten years of his life in Yodok concentration camp because his family was considered politically unreliable.
“I will face execution if I reveal the secrets of Yodok.”
– written oath all released Yodok prisoners must sign
The book is primarily an account of his time in Yodok, but that time is bookended with what his life in North Korea was like before his imprisonment, as well as his eventual defection and his work today. Of course, it is a deeply disturbing narrative, but it is also skillfully told and translated. I very much enjoyed reading the book.
It’s his work today I find fascinating and inspiring, and it’s a cause I’m proud to support.
To learn about the brutality of the North Korean regime is to fully realize the futility of bringing about its end externally. It’s completely implausible except by force, and given that a war with North Korea on day one would be a war with China on day two, that’s just not going to happen.
Kang Chol-hwan is president of the North Korea Strategy Center (Wikipedia link, organizational link in South Korea). His organization undertakes many activities designed to bring about a free, open, and democratic North Korea. The one I find most fascinating is his systematic infiltration of North Korea with Western media, mostly on DVDs and USB thumb drives. What’s he sending? How about Friends? Desperate Housewives? From the North Korea Strategy Center site:
Kang likens the USB sticks to the red pill from The Matrix: a mind-altering treatment that has the power to shatter a world of illusions. “When North Koreans watch Desperate Housewives, they see that Americans aren’t all war-loving imperialists,” Kang says. “They’re just people having affairs or whatever. They see the leisure, the freedom. They realize that this isn’t the enemy; it’s what they want for themselves. It cancels out everything they’ve been told. And when that happens, it starts a revolution in their mind.”
“For every USB drive I send across, there are perhaps 100 North Koreans who begin to question why they live this way. Why they’ve been put in a jar.”
That’s how it’s going to happen. That’s the only way it can happen. Seems like long odds there too, but if a man of Kang Chol-hwan’s background says it’s the best hope, then there must be something to it. He may be the most qualified person on the planet to speak on the issue.
Donations are accepted by bank transfer and through Bitcoin (again, a link to South Korea). I don’t ask you, my dear BoWilliams.com readers, to support specific causes very often, but please consider this one. The North Korean regime is an atrocity in every sense of the word, and I would love to live long enough to see its destruction.
Wouldn’t you love to be able to say you helped it along?