Asking the forbidden question
You pay a high price when you go to North Korea. You’re led around to sights you don’t really want to see, on a hectic schedule that can be quite tiring, and you never get out of the sight of your minders.
The whole point of the exercise is to try and get a slight sense of where the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is going in terms of policy, living, development, all that. Your minders will have other ideas. For starters, they want visitors to pay homage to Kim Il-sung, the ``eternal president.” In nearly two weeks in the country, our group had to line up three times before bronze, or bronze-plated, statues of the Great Leader.
One or two people, having bought flowers from a woman with a cart load of them nearby, stepped forward each time and laid them at the feet of each statue ― the first time, to be precise, at the feet of a new statue on Mansudae of Kim Il-sung standing next to his son, Kim Jong-il, ``eternal general secretary” of the Workers’ Party and ``eternal chairman” of the National Defense Commission.
One of the minders thoughtfully explained that the new statue of Kim Il-sung had him smiling slightly and wearing glasses ― an improvement, it seemed, over the old statue that was there before Kim Jong-il passed away in December. The statues of both father and son were the same height. No way would it be good for the son to appear smaller than his father, as he was in real life.
Twice more during my visit we lined up while a few members of the group stepped forward with flowers and bowed. If you were in the second row, you could get away with a nod. I made sure to be in the second row. Nowhere else in the world do visitors have to bow before statues. Every time we were advised, do not take partial body shots ― that is, pictures showing just the feet or half-body with flowers strewn before them. When you’re shooting deceased DPRK leaders, it seems, it’s all or nothing.
The need to bow might seem like a small price to pay in your search for perceptions, though one topic is absolutely off the table, not open for discussion. That’s human rights. You know very well, from everything you’ve been told in South Korea and Washington, at the United Nations and other places, that North Korea routinely commits the cruelest human rights violations.
You’re aware, from every source you’ve ever encountered, that the DPRK operates a gulag system in which about 200,000 people are imprisoned for life. They come and go. New inmates replace those who die of disease and starvation, beatings and other forms of torture or are simply executed. Nobody gets a reprieve. Nobody gets his or her sentence lifted on appeal or for good behavior. Nor are those the only prison camps in North Korea. Thousands get imprisoned for offenses for which, again, there is no appeal but which at least are not punishable by death or life unto death in the gulag.
Actually, you don’t dare mention human rights when you’re in North Korea ― you wouldn’t want to upset your minders with anything so rude and indelicate. Anyway, you’re thinking, this is a developing country, let’s be empathetic and understanding. The sight of so many people who are short and thin, and the need for oxen to pull carts and ploughs, inspires thoughts of what to do to help. But then you remember, if they’re so poor, what are they doing with all those missiles and nukes, and why do you see so many soldiers?
The human rights issue, meanwhile, won’t go away. The issue isn’t debated much in the United Nations but does inspire byplay when it comes up. North Korean diplomats are well trained to issue denials and denunciations. Western diplomats in Pyongyang say they can’t raise the issue at all with their own minders. The temptation is to forget about it, to adopt the mentality, these poor people are far away, there is nothing we can do about them anyway.
But hang on ― wasn’t that the mentality that overcame the allied forces in World War II when they were wiping out Nazi Germany? Didn’t they know about Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, Treblinka, to name four of the best known, before they landed at Normandy in June 1944?
How many of the many millions who died in these camps ― 6 million Jews and millions of others, gypsies, Poles and Russians, among others ― might have been saved by assaults far behind German lines? Nobody was thinking much about the camps until allied soldiers made it across Germany and freed the emaciated survivors.
That’s not to suggest special operations to spring the victims of the North Korean gulag. The repercussions would be unimaginable – a second Korean War, a regional war. It is, however, a reminder that someday the North Korean gulag system has to shut down. The least we can do now is repeatedly ask the North Koreans the forbidden question, what about human rights and your gulag system? Right, I don’t recall anyone mouthing the phrase ``human rights” during my visit. Maybe next time someone will.
Columnist Donald Kirk, www.donaldkirk.com, has been writing off and on about human rights in North and South Korea since the 1970s. He’s reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org.