North Korean Concentration Camps Will Outlive Kim Jong-il
In his visit to the Asia-Pacific region last month, President Barack Obama declared: "The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay." This will hopefully mean that substantial steps will be taken to ensure that U.S. supremacy -- the advancement of both strategic interests and values -- reigns in the Pacific throughout the 21st century. Further, of paramount importance for a better tomorrow for perhaps the majority of humanity are the strengthening of cultural and military alliances and the defense of regional liberal democracies, through vigilantly securing the conventional arms trade and maintaining technological superiority.
Kim Jong-il's death probably offers no quick fixes. The problem with focusing the limelight on a single figurehead is that it creates tunnel-vision, ignoring the vast power structure and security apparatus that maintain and by definition constitute the North Korean regime itself. It is too early to tell, but in all likelihood, the regime will not relinquish power or nuclear capabilities -- they have been the world's elite students of the falls of Cold-War and recent authoritarian regimes. As such, far from a period of weakness and instability, this leadership succession may prove to be a period of enduring or escalating horror.
Unfortunately for North Koreans, America's Pacific pivot will also undoubtedly mean an uncritical continuation of the status quo in U.S. policy towards the North Korean regime. The regime will remain the world's worst oppressor, flaunting a staggeringly peerless and altogether unchallenged list of human rights violations, detailed in a report commissioned by Vaclav Havel, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel, and former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Bondevick. In the coming decades, many more generations of North Koreans will be lost to sex-trafficking, malnutrition, starvation, disease, torture, and execution.
In other words, concentration camps will stay open with fresh inmates, and food insecurity will continue to be used as a weapon to silence millions who belong to "hostile" population groups. According to the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and Google Earth, the North Korean regime operates a network of concentration camps where an estimated 200,000 inmates currently languish under starvation-level rations, forced labor under brutal conditions, torture, and public execution. These concentration camps have cut down hundreds of thousands lives and counting. Moreover, approximately a million people perished during the 1990s famine due to the regime's gross and deliberate mismanagement. Now, the World Food Programme, the United Nations food agency, reports in its November 2011 assessment that millions of North Koreans, especially children, are suffering from malnutrition.
The North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-333) and its 2008 reauthorization, a pro-democracy document, have never been implemented. According to Christopher Hitchens, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Assistant Secretary Christopher R. Hill consistently censored and sidelined Jay Lefkowitz, the part-time special envoy for human rights in North Korea. More recently, the State Department continues to scrub and purge the special envoy's office from its official website, its de facto spokesperson. And while the Obama administration installed Robert R. King as the full-time special envoy in November 2009, he seems to be shut out of the policy process, more or less left to incompetently and ineffectually learn about the issue on the job.
In short, no meaningful diplomatic or programmatic efforts have ever been made to attempt to stop North Korea's crimes against humanity. This has never been a policy priority -- to claim otherwise would be malicious fraud. All of this suggests that, apart from the Chinese Communist Party, the State Department of our great nation is apparently the closest ally of and advocate for North Korea's concentration camps. If this contention elicits balking, we may do well to recall the conduct, rhetoric, and moral equivalence of U.S. government officials during the Holocaust.
So how will we commemorate the eight-, twelve-, or twenty-year reauthorizations of the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004? Will our leaders continue to cast aside U.S. law, abandon the values that made our nation great, and dismiss the utopian vision of "never again" as naively unrealizable? We can only hope that the answer is no. And it is important to note that the coming months will perhaps be a period ripe with opportunity never to be seen again.
The 21st century will be an American Century. And America, as the earth's standard-bearer for freedom, ought to construct the pillars of justice and liberty worldwide. But it is also unclear whether the most perilous and dangerously cynical enemies of freedom lie contained solely above the 38th parallel. Nevertheless, with American leadership, the 21st century can witness the abolition of crimes against humanity in the Pacific. As Lady Violet Bonham Carter put it, "[u]nless we, the free democracies of the world ... are prepared to stand together and to take the same risks for justice, peace and freedom that others are prepared to take for the fruits of aggression, then our cause is lost -- and the gangsters will inherit the earth."
The writer is a recent graduate of Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the former research & policy officer of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), an international NGO devoted to human rights in North Korea and the protection of North Korean refugees worldwide. His writings have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, The Korea Times, and American Thinker.