I read this story in the WaPo a few days back, and have been at a loss regarding what to say about it. It’s about a man who never was: a 26-year-old born and raised in one of the most horrific prison camps of North Korea. He was conceived after his prisoner mother was offered to his prisoner father in reward “for excellent work as a mechanic.” His life and inward condition lie beyond the comprehension of anyone born to freedom.
He is a thin, short, shy man, with quick, wary eyes, a baby face, and sinewy arms bowed from childhood labor. There are burn scars on his back and left arm from where he was tortured by fire at age 14, when he was unable to explain why his soon-to-be-hanged mother had tried to escape. The middle finger of his right hand is cut off at the first knuckle, punishment for accidentally dropping a sewing machine in the garment factory at his camp.
This man who never was managed to escape — possibly the only person to break out of a high-security North Korean camp — and to make his way to South Korea. He remains, and I suppose will always be, a nonperson, a spiritual cripple, perplexed by the world around him. That is tragic but understandable. Less so is the response of the South Koreans to his story.
South Korea is a prosperous, comfortable country. I have visited Seoul: the skyscrapers there have bizarrely cute signs saying, in Korean and English, things like “Happy forever.” Across the fortified border, South Koreans observe Kim Jong Il turn his country into a vast prison camp and an economic black hole. They recall the trouble the West Germans have had with their reunited ex-communist brethren, and they have decided that, all in all, they prefer Kim to freedom for the north. They wish to stay prosperous and comfortable: happy forever.
When South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was elected last year, only 3 percent of voters named North Korea as a primary concern. They were overwhelmingly interested in economic growth and higher salaries.
Kim Jong Il is a moral monster beyond the reach of justice. Neither the South Koreans nor anyone else wish to start a war to punish him for his crimes. Moral posturing, of the kind favored by enviromental activists and pro-Tibet Hollywood stars, is worse than useless — a trivializing of the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the suffering of millions. To say “Never again” regarding the slaughter of people in faraway places is to make a promise we cannot keep.
But silence may be the worst policy of all. First, it invites darker voices — the advocates and apologists of despotism — to fill the void. At worst, a mass murderer may silently be tolerated as a commodity, then admired as a movie hero: consider the case of Che Guevara. I doubt Kim Jong Il, whose cinematic exposure has been of an entirely different kind, will ever become a matinee idol — but regarding him and his works with anything less than open repugnance denotes confusion on our part.
Kim should be called what he is: a monster. The South Koreans, whose cousins struggle to survive in Kim’s prison camps, must be the first to bear witness to the suffering north. They should support and sustain escapees like the young man who never was, and broadcast their stories. The horrors being perpetrated by Kim’s agents should be brought to their attention, and ours, at least as often as runaway brides or shark attacks. None of this will make the life of North Korean prison camp inmates a whit less painful, but it will keep clear the distinction between freedom and despotism, and between good and evil. Unclarity on such matters is usually paid for dearly.
By regaining their voice, the South Koreans have less to lose than they think. The distinction between means and ends can mislead: the means impregnate the ends, and must unfold within them. Bloody revolutions are often said to consume their own. The indiscriminate violence Palestinians used to regain some of their land they now perpetrate on themselves. The South Koreans’ embrace of a blood-soaked despot for the sake of comfort will lead them, I venture to predict, to a very uncomfortable place.