After the uncertainty, real and feigned, about a single woman dying under tragic circumstances in Florida, we have this story in the WaPo about death in North Korea. In the U.S., we struggle to balance freedom and moral discipline. In North Korea, it’s much simpler: neither apply. Being distant and walled off from the world, the country enjoys an additional advantage: nobody pays attention. Nobody can be expected to agonize, or write angry editorials, or strike epic poses in Congress, over the suffering of people born in such an obscure place.
The article details the experimentation on living prisoners by North Korean scientists, working to develop killer biological agents. Actual persons who have participated in this enlightened research activity, but have now defected, are interviewed. It took an hour into our debriefing for Dr. Lee to get around to the fact that he helped develop deadly agents at a secret underground poison and toxin research institute. In that connection, he matter-of-factly described how, in 1979, he was in charge of gassing two political prisoners. The victims’ suffering was documented by scientists, who took notes outside glass-encased gas chambers that were also wired for sound. One prisoner died after 2 1/2 hours, the other after 3 1/2 hours of agony. Then a young scientist, Dr. Lee was rewarded with a medal and promotions for his role in these successful experiments. Twenty-five years later, he expressed no remorse, but his recall of details and dates make him a credible, if frightening, witness.
Another North Korean defector I interviewed was 31-year-old Chun Ji Suang (also a pseudonym). In 1994, while attending a prestigious scientific institute, he was selected to be part of two teams researching various types of gassing — from slow-acting, untraceable poisons to be used for assassinations to those that would cause instantaneous death. For eight years these scientists constantly moved their base of operations throughout the North Korean gulag. He belonged to Team A, which experimented exclusively on animals. When they successfully concluded an experiment, Team B then used those results on human guinea pigs. Unlike Dr. Lee, this young man is very remorseful. His escape from North Korea was facilitated by a supervisor and other secret sympathizers who urged him to expose Kim Jong Il’s atrocities.
A modest proposal: let us never turn our minds away from from a stranger’s agony in Florida, or Michael Jackson’s world-historical trial in California, or Martha Stewart’s frilly-curtained jailhouse wherever that is, and reflect, even for a moment, about the murder of thousands by ghastly means on the orders of Kim Jong Il. The harsh simplicity of the subject matter might damage the compassion centers in our brains.