As the U.S. tries to finalize an agreement on North Korea's nuclear program, there is a grim reminder that we need to engage the DPRK on other matters as well.
A former North Korean political prisoner--his identity disguised to protect relatives still living in the DPRK--held a press conference on Tuesday, describing his horrific stay in Kim Jong-Il's infamous Yodok Prison Camp. He said that prisoners in the camp received a starvation ration of 21 ounces of food a day, and that many died of disease and malnutrition. The former prisoner said the deaths of their fellow inmates went unmourned, because their passing meant more rations for the survivors. He also recalled that a former defector was beaten to death at Yodok for contacting Christian representatives during a brief stay in China.
According to State Department estimates, as many as 200,000 prisoners languish in the North Korean gulag. But there is comparatively little outcry from human rights organizations. Go to the Amnesty International webpage, and you'll see a headline touting their recent conference for former detainees in the War on Terror. By comparison, their page on North Korea is little more than a recitation of past diplomatic and media reporting on human rights abuses in the DPRK.
While the abuse of prisoners should never be condoned, comparisons between the War on Terror to Kim Jong-Il's prison camps are instructive. By most estimates, about 100 detainees have died in captivity during the War on Terror (out of 85,000 taken prisoner), while thousands have perished in the North Korean gulag. But Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are (apparently) far more concerned about alleged torture of suspected terrorists than the systematic extermination of North Korean prisoners. Do a Google search for "human rights abuses in North Korea" and you'll get about 4,920,000 matches. But do a search on Abu Ghraib, and you'll get 6,200,000 matches.
But the indifference doesn't end there. The Clinton Administration went to war against Serbia for (among other reasons) the abuse of Muslims, Croats and other minorities by Belgrade's military forces. A recent report indicates that as many as 100,000 people died in ethnic fighting in the Balkans between 1992-95, providing a catalyst for the eventual air war against Serbia. While that death toll seems staggering, it represents only a fraction of those who have perished in North Korean prison camps. World outrage compelled military action against Belgrade, but there have been no calls for a campaign to liberate North Korea, and end human suffering. Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal--and the threat of another Korean War--limit our "official" response to diplomatic notes and sharply-worded statements.
Still, such indifference to human suffering Kim's gulags isn't surprising. For years, Soviet propagandists and their allies in the west downplayed the murderous impact of Stalin's pogroms, which resulted in the murder of millions of Ukranians, Kulaks and others. The gulag network--and its atrocities--continued after Stalin's death, but western demands for human rights reform never galvanized until the publication of Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago in the early 1970s.
Someday, perhaps, a Korean Solzhenitsyn will emerge from Kim Jong-Ils gulags and give voice to the thousands who have suffered and died in a literal hell on earth. Their plight reminds us that there can never be lasting peace in Northeast Asia until Kim and his brutal regime have been eradicated, once and for all.