Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Evil Men Do

One of the most hellish places on earth, perhaps the most hellish place there has ever been on earth, is North Korea. Bill Keller of the New York Times has written a review of a book written about a man who managed to escape one of the prison camps in what is a prison camp of a nation, and his account is horrific:
I’ve just read Blaine Harden’s “Escape from Camp 14,” the harrowing story of a young man’s flight from one of the slave labor camps where as many as 200,000 political unreliables — a category that includes not just those who run afoul of authority but their relatives for three generations — are sent to be starved, tortured and ultimately worked to death. The political camps are just part of a larger network of detention sites designed to crush any spark of free will.

Harden’s story of Shin Dong-hyuk differs from the best previous refugee narratives — “The Aquariums of Pyongyang” by Kang Chol-hwan, Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy” — because Shin was in every sense a product of Camp 14. Born in captivity to a pair of inmates picked by camp commanders for a loveless bit of procreation, Shin grew up with no awareness of anything beyond the electrified fences. He is like the boy-narrator of Emma Donoghue’s novel “Room,” whose entire world is the backyard shed where he and his kidnapped mother are held captive. Except that the boy in “Room” knows love.

Harden’s book, besides being a gripping story, unsparingly told, carries a freight of intelligence about this black hole of a country. It explains how the regime has endured longer than any of its bestial prototypes: longer than Hitler, longer than Stalin, longer than Mao, longer than Pol Pot. The tools are enforced isolation, debilitating fear, dehumanizing hunger and utter dependence on the state. By the time he was a teenager, Shin had watched a teacher beat a 6-year-old girl to death for hoarding five kernels of corn; worse, he had betrayed his own mother and brother, and had witnessed their public execution without remorse.

Yet Shin, who is not exactly a master escape artist, manages to evade the state’s controls, and along his stumble to freedom he encounters many others who — not in words, certainly, but in practice — are defying the system. What strikes you is how the shackles of totalitarianism are being corroded by bribery, barter and black-marketeering, including a thriving cross-border trade with China. It’s still a crushingly oppressive regime, arbitrary and brutal. But more often than you would imagine, need trumps fear.

Harden’s narrative is reinforced by more systematic studies. When David Hawk of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea researched the first edition of his camp exposé “The Hidden Gulag” in 2003, some 3,000 North Koreans had found asylum in the South, including several score of former political prisoners. When he returned for the second edition, just published, the pool of refugees was 23,000, and included hundreds who had endured detention. The updated report is a vivid chronicle of horrors, illustrated by crisp Google Earth photos that make the slave camps as palpable as suburban real estate on Zillow.
North Korea is a vivid, if extreme, illustration of what happens when materialistic atheism is wedded to absolute power and leftist ideology. We witnessed it throughout the twentieth century in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Communist China, Cambodia, Cuba, and dozens of other loci of misery and cruelty around the world. Combine power and leftism with the lack of any basis for moral restraint in the leaders of a state and the result is pure evil. North Korea is but the most current instantiation of the rule.