Saturday, 16 February 2013

Rant about Impotence

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.


  1. It is a TRAGEDY! What I personally thought was possibly the most tragic and disturbing when I first heard about this topic during the preparation of this blog post (obviously in addition to their existence), is exactly that I had NOT heard about it before. Considering myself not entirely ignorant of what is happening in the world and even with a particular interest and involvement in human rights issues, how could something like this have escaped my attention??? Why is it that our very professional, international and sometimes self-rightous media (I can at least speak for the German media with more certainty here) think that this is not news we are or should be interested in? So, I can definitely relate to Laura's surprise and bewilderment when first reading about the North Korean gulag system. This being said, I think this topic still needs a lot more PUBLICITY and AWARENESS. Admittedly this is not the most innovative of all ideas (and certainly not unique to this particular topic) but I believe it is the starting point. (How should anyone do anything if they don't know about it?) This blog spot is a very welcome contribution in this regard.
    However, I also agree with Laura that only pointing the finger at the subject and saying it is tragedy can not be satisfactory. I will try to think about some more "hands-on" ideas as to what an individual can do (in addition to the VERY important task of making people aware of what is happening in North Korea by way of discussion, writing blog posts, publishing in more public media or directing queries towards government officials etc.). One thing I have often found to be quite useful though in the past whenever I was at a loss of what to do, was to ask a person with more expertise than myself. As things stand, there is probably not many more people out there who have more expertise than Mr. Shin Dong-hyuk when it comes to North Korean gulags and what should best be done about it. Hence, my idea: Ask him!

  2. Update: Amnesty has just published a report in which they examine satellite images suggesting that the camps are GROWING. They show that the area of control around some of these camps is encroaching further into the surrounding areas, obviously making escape more difficult and bringing more people within the extended perimeter of the camps.

    Just when I thought it couldn't get more depressing...