Europe and Asia’s ignored prison states

December 29, 2013

North Korea’s Camp 14: Total Control Zone

 

AS THE WORLD MOURNS NELSON MANDELA, HOW MANY PEOPLE CAN NAME A SINGLE NORTH KOREAN VICTIM?

[Note by Tom Gross]

As the year draws to a close, and while the world media and politicians focus on conflicts in Africa, such as those in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, and to some extent on this week’s violence in the Middle East, in Iraq, Syria and Egypt, it is worth remembering the atrocious situations in two of the worst countries in the world: North Korea, and Belarus.

Belarus is a country which borders the European Union, but which the EU spends very little time considering even though its people are, as Andrei Sannikov writes, repressed by a brutal dictator more ruthless and despotic than Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Russian President Vladimir Putin combined.

And as David Feith writes below, while the world trivializes the situation in North Korea, whether through spoofs from the creators of “South Park” or Elle magazine touting the trendiness of “North Korea chic” distinguished by “sharp buckles and clasps and take-no-prisoners tailoring,” or Dennis Rodman celebrating Kim Jong Un as a “friend for life,” the plight of millions of North Koreans barely registers on the world stage.

As the world mourns Nelson Mandela, how many people can name a single North Korean victim?

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I attach two articles below. David Feith is an editorial writer at The Wall Street Journal Asia, and a subscriber to this email list. Andrei Sannikov, a former political prisoner and opposition leader in Belarus, now lives in exile in Warsaw.


“COULDN’T HAVE HAPPENED TO A NICER GUY”

North Korea’s Dennis Rodman Problem
By David Feith
Wall Street Journal
December 19, 2013

Now we know what it takes to turn world attention to the horrors of North Korea. Last week’s purge of Pyongyang’s second-in-command was a state TV spectacle, with soldiers dragging Jang Song-thaek from an official meeting and later marching him into court, hunched over and handcuffed. Jang’s execution occurred off-screen – likely by firing squad – but the central news agency’s announcement was vivid in its own way, calling Jang “despicable human scum” who “was worse than a dog.”

Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Jang had been near the pinnacle of North Korean power since marrying into the ruling family in 1972. As brother-in-law to former leader Kim Jong Il and uncle to current leader Kim Jong Un, he helped keep his country’s 24 million people captive and miserable.

Thanks in part to Jang’s work, no North Korean can travel, speak or worship freely. As many as 2.5 million North Koreans died of starvation or related illness in the mid-1990s, according to Andrew Natsios, author of “The Great North Korean Famine.” That was one-tenth of the population. One million more have perished in political prisons, or kwalliso, where 200,000 still languish. Across this gulag, the dead lie unburied during frozen winters, prisoners dig their own graves before executions, and starving children scour for undigested kernels of corn in cow dung.

Yet North Korea’s cruelty rarely earns wide attention. Even the country’s nuclear arsenal is eclipsed in global consciousness – by ridicule.

Kim Jong Il was a tyrant who launched a thousand punch lines with his bouffant hairstyle, monochrome suits and platform shoes, along with his penchant for pornography and claim to five holes-in-one in a single golf round. An Economist magazine cover in 2000 showed him waving beneath the headline: “Greetings, earthlings.”

In 2004, a foul-mouthed, string-puppet version of Kim was the hilarious villain of “Team America: World Police,” a spoof from the creators of “South Park.” When the real Kim died in 2011, “Team America” was among Twitter’s most popular trending topics. “People responded to the death of one of the worst dictators of the 20th century with references to a cartoon puppet film,” Sokeel Park of the activist group Liberty in North Korea laments.

The trivialization of horror has accelerated in the Kim Jong Un era. Internet memes mock the young leader’s girth, haircut and Mao suits, while Elle magazine recently touted the trendiness of “North Korea chic,” distinguished by “sharp buckles and clasps and take-no-prisoners tailoring.”

Even South Koreans living within range of the North’s artillery don’t take the enemy seriously. Park Sang Hak, who escaped from the North in 1999, complains that the South’s schools refuse to teach about North Korean suffering, while its journalists obsess over the fashion sense of Pyongyang’s twenty-something first lady, Ri Sol Ju.

Topping it off is the media frenzy around Dennis Rodman, the freakish former NBA star who celebrates Kim Jong Un as a “friend for life” and is now touring North Korea for the third time in a year. After his first pilgrimage, Mr. Rodman appeared on ABC’s “This Week” to convey Kim’s request that President Obama give him a call.

Amid all this, the plight of North Koreans barely registers on the world stage. The contrast with South Africa is telling. As the world mourns Nelson Mandela, how many people can name a single North Korean victim? Among the countless sites of North Korean brutality, there is no globally recognized Soweto. And it’s a rare diplomat or college student who could identify songbun, the decades-old system of political apartheid that dictates every North Korean’s life, from housing to education, jobs and food.

This is partly because North Korea is the Hermit Kingdom. The Kims have expended enormous energy cutting off their people from the outside world. Yet several first-hand accounts of life in North Korea exist and deserve wider attention.

The best-known may be journalist Blaine Harden’s “Escape From Camp 14,” about Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person known to have escaped North Korea (in 2005) after being born in a concentration camp. Kang Chol-hwan’s memoir “Aquariums of Pyongyang” recounts his imprisonment in the gulag as a teenager, from 1977-87. Mr. Kang’s experience is one of several dramatized in “Yodok Story,” a 2006 musical by fellow North Korean defector Jung Sung San. The related documentary “Yodok Stories” records how Mr. Jung produced the musical to honor his father, who was stoned to death as punishment for his son’s defection.

Other movies – including “Danny From North Korea,” “48m” and “Crossing,” called “a ‘Schindler’s List’ for North Korea” by former Journal editor (and “Escape From North Korea” author) Melanie Kirkpatrick – depict what it means to defect. Most would-be defectors must cross the Tumen or Yalu rivers, where guards have shoot-to-kill orders, and enter China, where they must hide from police to avoid being repatriated to face imprisonment or execution in North Korea.

Most defectors hope to make it to Southeast Asia and ultimately to South Korea, but that requires luck and reliable help. Many women make it to China only to be sold into prostitution or forced marriages.

In this context it is perverse that the execution of the odious Uncle Jang should prompt so much overdue talk of the Kim regime’s cruelty. It’s also grim confirmation of a quip often attributed to Stalin: “One death is a tragedy. One million deaths is a statistic.”

 

MEDIA FOCUS ON UKRAINE, BUT WHAT ABOUT BELARUS?

Supporting Belarus’s climb out from under dictatorship
By Andrei Sannikov
Washington Post
December 26, 2013

The world’s attention has recently been focused on the brave people of Ukraine, who have held large rallies in support of joining Europe rather than falling into the “embrace” of Russia. But it is also important to remember Ukraine’s northern neighbor Belarus, a country that lies geographically in the heart of Europe but politically is more akin to a Soviet backwater. The majority of its citizens want to be free, but they are repressed by a brutal dictator more ruthless and despotic than Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Russian President Vladimir Putin combined.

As a presidential candidate in Belarus three years ago, I took part in massive demonstrations the size of which my country had not seen for years. In central Minsk, people from all walks of life braved a police state, and the cold, to protest the widespread election fraud by which Belarusan dictator Alexander Lukashenko stole the presidential election. We also backed a future that lies with Europe, not a re-created Soviet Union.

This demonstration of the people’s will scared Lukashenko and his thugs. Riot police brutally broke up our peaceful rally and beat women, senior citizens and anyone else they could reach, evoking images not seen in my country since the end of World War II. I spent that Christmas and the next – altogether more than a year – in a Soviet-era jail as a political prisoner. I was released as a result of a rare demonstration of political will on the part of the European Union, which imposed sanctions on Lukashenko’s financial supporters. However, additional sanctions planned by the European Union didn’t materialize, partly because of intense lobbying by Latvia and Slovenia, and numerous other political prisoners remain in prison in Belarus, including my colleague, presidential candidate Mikalai Statkevich, and human rights defender Ales Bialiatski.

The European Union’s lack of will and strategy in dealing with countries on its periphery began with it turning a blind eye to Lukashenko’s undemocratic consolidation of power in the mid-1990s. As Europe experienced an unprecedented period of economic success, great expectations and enlargement, and as it declared a commitment to common democratic values and human rights, Lukashenko rigged elections while his opponents mysteriously disappeared. The E.U. responded by suspending relations with the regime but didn’t take more serious steps such as launching investigations. Instead, the E.U. simply hoped that the next election would be fair. Popular opposition leaders Yuri Zakharenko and Viktor Gonchar were then murdered in 1999, and Gennady Karpenko died under mysterious circumstances. Each had enjoyed broad support and could easily have won against Lukashenko. As Lukashenko constructed modern Europe’s most repressive and totalitarian system, the European Union didn’t react adequately.

Europe today faces a very real crisis of values. The European Union simply does not see its mission as strengthening and developing democratic values in Europe itself, despite its declaration that the Eastern Partnership program, in which Eastern neighbors including Belarus build ties with the E.U., is a framework based on them. Instead, the program has turned out to be just another means of justifying diplomacy and trade with autocrats – including maintaining a relationship with the dictator Lukashenko by returning to a policy of “dialogue” with Minsk.

Ukrainians are rejecting their corrupt leader through their Euromaidan protests. It was encouraging to see European and U.S. politicians, such as Sen. John McCain, Polish members of the European Parliament and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, come to the central square in Kiev to bolster them. However, strong moral support is not enough when the Kremlin has stepped in with loans and cheaper gas – not to help Yanukovych per se but to defend the model of dictatorial rule in the region.

The E.U. believes it can maintain its own institutions and values while engaging and trading with undemocratic neighbors such as Belarus, Ukraine and Russia at no political or moral cost to itself. This is a mistake. No amount of “engagement” or “realpolitik” overtures toward autocrats is going to create predictable, safe neighbors for the European Union.

It is not a question of if but when Belarusans will rid themselves of Europe’s last dictatorship and join the community of European democracies. The strategy for doing so has to be built on principles. Lukashenko must be sanctioned for the crimes he has committed, and the people of Belarus must be engaged. By supporting democratic movements, free media and freedom fighters, along with transparent cooperation and concerted diplomacy with the European Union, the Obama administration can significantly reduce this time from years to months.


All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.