Entire generations of families imprisoned. Food so scarce that starvation is barely a week away. Actions, words, even beliefs monitored by guards in tall watchtowers, fingers itching over the triggers of their AK-47s.
This isn’t a scene from a B-grade science fiction film or a historical work on the Holocaust; this is everyday life for those imprisoned in North Korea’s labor camps. And that’s just the start of it.
North Korea has long been a source of hard to believe modern-day horror stories. However, as more and more defectors seek refuge anywhere but North Korea and bring their stories with them, the truth seems even worse than the stories.
Kim Jong-Un seems more comical than terrifying; short and squat, frequent photographs are released of the man in oversized coats, laughter plastered across a jolly face. In a way, he looks like the sort of person you’d invite to a backyard barbecue.
Not the maestro of a thousand atrocities.
North Korea is a land dominated by contradictions. Half of the society lives in wretched poverty, while the other half puts hedonists to shame. The average GDP per capita of a North Korean citizen is only $506, according to UN estimates. It’s one of 34 countries in the world that cannot feed its citizens without help from other countries; despite this, Kim Jong-un’s parties are known to be legendary.
Dennis Rodman is one of few Americans with nearly unrestricted access to North Korea, a benefit that comes with being a ‘good friend’ of the Supreme Leader. He states that Kim Jong-un has a lifestyle like a ‘7-star party.’ Reports state the country spends nearly $30 million on alcohol imports alone, with $37 million more going to electronics and $8.2 million going toward luxury watches.
The people starve while the ruling class place blame on an outside enemy — in this case, the United States. And the parallels to another time don’t stop there.
North Korean citizens fear not only for themselves, but for their descendants. A law exists that allows the government to imprison three generations of a family if even one is considered disloyal; this means that entire lifetimes have been spent within the labor camps with no knowledge of what freedom means. Imagine living a life of hard labor under torturous conditions for a crime your grandfather committed, and you may begin to understand what things are like for those incarcerated in the camps.
And while the North Korean labor camps aren’t designed with the eradication of a people in mind, those trapped there aren’t treated much better than those at Auschwitz. One of the most notorious labor camps is Camp 22 (now believed to be closed.) Countless horror stories have been told about the conditions in the camp, although nothing can be confirmed.
During the Holocaust, Nazis exterminated six million Jews and another five million Romani, homosexuals, Christians, Muslims, and anyone else who didn’t agree with their ideology. While North Korea hasn’t yet reached that level of death, hundreds of thousands have died as a result of abuse, malnutrition, and execution.
Prisoners are sometimes kept in cells that restrict their circulation; these cells prevent them from standing up straight or stretching out on the ground, slowing the flow of blood through their bodies until their skin color changes. Prisoners are hung upside down, submerged underwater for extended periods of time, and have needles driven under their fingernails. According to the United Nations, North Korea’s crimes against humanity are “strikingly similar” to those of the Nazis.
The United Nations conducted an inquiry, led by judge Michael Kirby, into the conditions of those imprisoned in North Korea. While the UN could not gain entry into North Korea, more than 80 witnesses gave public statements, while another 240 victims gave confidential interviews.
With such first hand knowledge of the terrible events taking place, I can’t help but ask: why isn’t more action being taken? Why has the United Nations not mobilized a strike force to depose Kim Jong-Un from power?
When the Holocaust came to light and those in charge were forced to answer for their crimes, a slogan emerged from the horror: “Never again.” The world swore to never again let something so terrible take place, but the present generation finds itself staring down the face of evil once more.
And so far, nothing has been done to stop it.
As Michael Kirby says, “At the end of the Second World War so many people said, ‘If only we had known, if only we had known the wrongs that were done in the countries of the hostile forces. There will be no excusing the failure of action because we didn’t know — we do know.”
One of the cited reasons for the current inaction derives from the lack of attempted genocide. According to international law, North Korea has not yet taken action against anyone outside their own country; anyone charged with a crime while visiting North Korea falls through a legal loophole that allows them to be judged by the North Korea’s own laws. Until North Korea actually becomes a world power or develops sufficient military power to carry out its threats against the United States and many other countries, this atrocity will continue to be ignored. (There is a chance that action will be taken soon; in light of recent weapons tests, the world’s eye is once more on North Korea.)
Aid money does nothing to help. South Korea has poured more than $7 billion in aid over the past decade, and the majority of it went toward the purchase of more weapons.
From an objective standpoint, the geopolitical situation surrounding North Korea is a minefield. Should the United Nations try to use force against Kim Jong-un’s armies, it risks aggravating a delicate situation with China. Retaliatory action could be taken against South Korea; with Seoul only 35 miles from the North Korean border, no one wants to put millions of innocent lives at risk.
And should a hypothetical strike succeed on the first attempt, what would happen to the 25 million citizens? Adjusting to a life of freedom would be tremendously difficult after living so long under an oppressive regime.
Despite these considerations, a single question remains: will it be worth it? Will future generations look back and judge our inaction as we do the generation of the Holocaust, or will they understand a situation that calls for turning a blind eye to the greatest crimes against human rights in the past fifty years?
Photo: La Real noticia/Creative Commons