North Korean Concentration Camps

New Yorkers are likely to remember Kitty Genovese.  In 1964 the 28 year old Genovese was stabbed twice and left in the street by an attacker who returned fifteen minutes later to rape her and finish his butchery.   For more than 30 minutes she suffered attacks, screamed for help, and lay dying in residential Queens.  No one helped.   No one called for police.  No one came to her rescue.

I was born years after this slaughter, but I can vividly remember my mother telling the story.  No one wanted to “get involved” was a point she stressed over and over.  My mother meant to warn me, to force me to realize that I needed to keep myself safe, that I should never rely on intervention of others.

It is a disgusting story of a dark side of human nature.  We are tempted to console ourselves that we would behave differently if we were there.

Years later, reading Elie Wiesel’s Night I had the same reaction.  How could anyone permit such horror to exist?  The Nazi concentration camps have now been closed for almost seventy years.  Again we can console ourselves that things would be different today.

Don’t kid yourself.

The infamous Auschwitz camp operated for three horrifying years.  The concentration camps of the People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) are operating today.  They have been unceasingly destroying people for more than 50 years.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang, the first book written about life in side the North Korean gulag, was published ten years ago.  No one cared.  Now we have Escape from Camp 14 by Shin Dong-hyuk.

I have read the Robert Conquest books, and Anne Applebaum’s history.  I read the Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn, and the Kolyma Tales.  I read Armando Valladare’s account of the Cuban prison camps, and countless writing about the Chinese political prisons.   All of it is gut-wrenching.  Most of it makes Kafka and Orwell seem too mild.

Despite that conditioning I was not prepared for Shin Dong-hyuk’s story.

Torture, beatings, starvation, forced labor, disease, depravity, desperation, fear, isolation, sexual assault, and every other manner of hell is in his story – these things are shared in every other Communist concentration camp.

Shin differed because he had no hope.  He lacked all knowledge of the world outside the camp.  Shin was born in a camp, raised there, and suffered there for 23 years before an improbable escape.  Twenty-three years of a nightmare with no concept that life could be different.  His English-speaking interviewer writes, “”during his years in the camp he [Shin] said he had never once heard the word ‘love,’ certainly not from his mother, a woman he continued to despise, even to death.”

It is only if we realize that the entire nation of North Korea is itself a political prison, can we begin to understand the magnitude of horror inside the camps.  The suffering of the North Koreans is unspeakable.   Our silence is unforgivable.

North Koreans are alone.  They are the Kitty Genovese of the world.  Surely much suffering and cruelty exists across the globe, but Cuba has its dissidents, Burma it’s Aung San Soo Kyi, and African nations have a smattering of celebrities.  One or two voices is not much, and does almost nothing to ease the pains, but it is something.   North Korea has no one.  I hope that Shin’s story is widely read and can alert the world to the systematic destruction of millions of Koreans.


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