Last night, the North Korean government announced that its Dear Leader of the last 17 years died of “mental and physical exhaustion” on Saturday morning local time. Instead of looking at the death as an opportunity to remember Kim Jong-Il’s excesses, or wondering what his son’s will be, a more fitting eulogy would be for the millions who never lived to see the death of the man who kept their nation in the dark for his 17-year reign.
Because the Kim family has kept North Korea more isolated than any other country in the world, it is impossible for the outside world to know just how many have been murdered. Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about a doctoral student who was using a collaborative online program and satellite photos to determine what was happening inside the reclusive Asian nation. He discovered what many North Korean refugees have spoken about at great length–mass graves belonging to North Koreans unlucky enough to be subjects of Kim Jong-Il during a period of famine between 1995 and 1998. Estimates of the death toll in just that three-year period are as high as two million souls.
While many find humor in the escapades of the North Korean’s former leader, known for his quirky love of film, cognac and “looking at things,” the depths of his evil cannot be overlooked or minimized. Neighboring countries are on alert, waiting to see what the succession will look like. President Obama has released a statement hoping for stability and a peaceful transition on the Korean peninsula. While the world may want the North Korean’s volatile deck of cards to stay intact, what about the North Korean people, trapped in dozens of gulags, some larger than Washington, D.C., others even found in Russian Siberia? (North Koreans actually count themselves lucky to be sent to labor camps in the middle of the Siberian wilderness.)
After every genocide, the world cries “Never Again.” We have watched as the leaders of Germany, Cambodia, Iraq and Rwanda (to name a few), murdered their citizens in cold blood. North Korean refugees have escaped and told their stories. One such gulag survivor, Kang Chol-Hwan, the author of a remarkable memoir, Aquariums of Pyongyang, reminds his readers:
As Hitler slaughtered millions of Jews, the world did not want to believe it was happening. No one wished to imagine that the smoke and ashes blown to the village by the wind, day in and day out, actually came from the burning of human bodies within the concentration camps. Only after the genocide of six million Jews came to its grisly end did mankind eventually confront this gruesome tragedy.
Now the term “concentration camp” has become inextricably linked to Hitler’s holocaust. But how on earth could I ever explain that the same – and in fact far worse – things are being repeated in this 21st century in North Korea, a relic of a failed experiment in human history called communism?
As Abe pointed out earlier, we are aware of the horrors perpetrated in the North Korea. This is an opportunity, never before seen, to free the most oppressed people in world history. Will President Obama watch this opportunity for North Korean’s freedom pass as he did in Iran and across the Middle East? Will South Koreans work to reunify their country and lead their countrymen out of misery? I often think of my grandparents’ generation, who watched the Holocaust unfold, silently. I think of my parents’ generation, who spent their time protesting the Vietnam War, but were silent as Pol Pot killed more than two million of his people. How will our children judge us if we allow this moment to pass, if we allow another Kim to keep North Koreans trapped in gulags and abject poverty?