The Scariest Place on Earth

How to think about North Korea

Poor Bruce Cumings. Familiar with him? He’s the University of Chicago professor who recently came out with a literary apologia for the excesses of Kim Jong Il’s dictatorship. His timing was about as deft as Al Gore’s endorsement of Howard Dean.

In North Korea: Another Country, Cumings presents the “Dear Leader” as a victim of U.S. militarism. He admits that, sure, the rulers of North Korea are kinda, sorta nasty, but they get an unduly bad rap in the American press and, in any case, our own leaders are no better. We, after all, have a “never-ending gulag full of black men in our prisons”—so who are we to judge?

Earlier this month, as it happens, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) aired a shocking report on North Korea’s sprawling network of concentration camps, modeled on the Soviet Gulag, which holds an estimated 200,000 or more inmates. The documentary’s centerpiece was an interview with Kwon Hyok, a former North Korean intelligence agent who defected to the South in 1999. He was once the head of security at Prison Camp 22—where, he now alleges, chemical weapons were tested on prisoners. “I witnessed a whole family being tested on suffocating gas and dying in the gas chamber,” he said. “The parents were vomiting and dying, but ’til the very last moment they tried to save the kids by doing mouth-to-mouth breathing.”

An ex-North Korean prisoner told the BBC that she’d once been commanded to poison dozens of fellow inmates. “An officer ordered me to select 50 healthy female prisoners,” Sun-ok Lee claimed. “One of the guards handed me a basket full of soaked cabbage, told me not to eat it but to give it to the 50 women.” She went on: “All who ate the cabbage leaves started violently vomiting blood and screaming with pain. It was hell. In less than 20 minutes, they were quite dead.” To buttress these accounts, South Korean human rights activist Kim Sang-hun offered a document he helped smuggle out of the North. Dated February 2002, it contained a government seal and referred to “human experimentation” at Prison Camp 22.

Could the BBC documentary be fallacious? Sure. The credibility of North Korean defectors and refugees is often questioned. Their stories are just too ghastly, too unreal. As Debra Liang-Fenton, executive director of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, tells me, the degree of repression is “not something that anyone can fathom.” But we now have an immense body of evidence revealing the regime’s systematic methods of abuse—in light of which the documentary seems wholly plausible.


While she doesn’t dispute the immediate strategic concerns, Liang-Fenton regrets that the six-party talks in Beijing—which reopen today—have heretofore focused exclusively on North Korea’s nuclear program, without regard for its appalling human rights violations. Consequently, she says, “Most people in the U.S. know about the nuke situation in North Korea, but not the humanitarian situation.”

Ideally, Liang-Fenton hopes that a “Helsinki-type agreement” might emerge from the talks—an agreement that would establish a multilateral forum in which to address North Korean brutality and bind the North to a comprehensive set of human rights principles. The human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which proved crucial to the long-term unraveling of the USSR, obliged the Soviets to respect values such as freedom of movement and exchange of ideas. They also created an international medium for critics of the regime.

Lamentably, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun has said he will not make human rights a factor in negotiations with the North. This pledge is in harmony with Seoul’s “sunshine policy” of North-South détente. Stemming from fears of a North Korean offensive or a massive refugee influx, “sunshine” has in practice meant appeasement. Its moral vacuity was laid bare this past August, when a German human rights worker, Dr. Norbert Vollertsen, was beaten by South Korean riot police while trying to launch a flock of hot air balloons carrying radios toward North Korea. A few days later, he led a peaceful anti-Kim Jong Il protest outside a press center in Taejon and was assaulted by North Korean reporters. President Roh quickly apologized for Dr. Vollertsen’s activities.

South Korean caution is thus a major obstacle to squeezing Kim. Another is the relative dearth of a political consensus on North Korean human rights in the United States. According to Liang-Fenton, “It’s been largely an issue for the right-of-center groups.” Republicans have been at the forefront, she says, while the response of Democrats has been “disappointing.”

A good starting point for bipartisan coalescence, she stresses, could be the North Korean Freedom Act, introduced last year by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. This legislation would allow North Korean refugees and defectors to settle in the United States and provide funding for initiatives such as Radio Free Asia and a variety of relevant NGOs. The sagacity of the bill lies in its legalistic-moralistic approach: seeking to undermine Kim’s grip on power by promoting the cause of liberty. It recognizes, correctly, that the root source of the North Korean threat is the nature of Kim’s regime.

Indeed, a totalitarian government’s domestic savagery is indissolubly connected to the external menace posed by its rulers. During the uncertain years of the Cold War, we had world-famous dissident-intellectuals such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov to remind us of this. It’s a lesson worth remembering as we ponder the awful dilemma of what to do about North Korea.

Duncan M. Currie ’04 is a history concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alernate Wednesdays.

Recommended Articles