North Korea is in the news again, but for all the wrong reasons.
We are so bombarded with images of misery and despair that the natural human reaction is to become jaded and stop caring. That is why I was almost surprised at myself when I read a long piece on the Guardian website about the experiences of Shin Dong-hyuk, the so far only known escapee from the North Korean gulag system who had been born into it. The article was based on and promoting his book, Escape from Camp 14, written by Blaine Harden. I would have desperately wanted to link the article, but it is no longer available on the website as its copyright has apparently expired. Here is a shorter and less harrowing review of the book. The book is also now available in Finnish, in September it topped the best-selling list for non-fiction. Here is a link to the short article in Helsingin Sanomat reporting on Mr Shin’s visit to Helsinki.
I was absolutely aghast upon reading the article. The matter was probably made worse by the fact that I had only slightly earlier finished Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, the definite account of the Soviet Gulag system written from the viewpoint of a former victim, and later Nobel-prize winner. The one thing that kept me from having nightmares when reading Solzhenitsyn was the thought that “this was in the past, we wouldn’t let it happen now”. Well it is happening now and we are aware of it and letting it happen.
I was at a loss. I felt I needed to do something, but didn’t know what to do. So I wrote to Amnesty International, the organisation that I’ve supported for years and whose (original) mission I firmly believe in asking them why THEY weren’t doing anything in the face of possibly the worst human rights violations our world was witnessing. (As an emergency treatment to any kind of moral guilt, I recommend blaming someone else, preferably those close to us and actually doing something worthwhile...) The UK and Swiss sections both replied to my e-mails admirably swiftly (take note all companies, public bodies and any other entity to which I may ever have addressed a customer/citizen query). They explained that they had ran a campaign in late 2011 (that I had somehow missed entirely), and were increasing their lobbying with the appointment of the new “ultimate leader”, which is usually a moment in time when changes are more likely in a totalitarian regime. Nothing seems to have come of it, though, as recently recognised by UN’s Navi Pillay, who is calling for an inquiry into what “may” amount to crimes against humanity. Understatement of the year. Meanwhile it is business as usual for the estimated 200,000 political prisoners in the gulags.
The Economist also ran an editorial deploring the situation, attacking nuclear-scared Western governments, the UN and China for their inaction. The last one of these, the only government that actually COULD do something, is of course deaf, if not worse, to pleas from Western magazines or HR organisations. Instead of putting pressure on North Korea to stop the abominable practice, China returns escapees to the hands of the North Korean authorities.
The feeling of impotence has certainly not gone away. Apart from donating money to Amnesty’s North Korea campaign, and raging at some of my closest people (F and mum the most obvious targets...), I have done nothing. This is largely because I have heard no good ideas. Amnesty has a few, so I’ve supported them. The Economist didn’t mention anything that an individual could do, nor did the Guardian or the UN. Most depressingly, Mr Shin himself has not been reported giving any practical tips of what we can do with the very painful, personal information he is touring the world spreading.
Ideas more than welcome.