Of the North’s crimes against humanity, the world will ask, “Where was South Korea?”

South Korea’s political left, which has long been divided over whether to be violently pro-North Korean, ideologically pro-North Korean, or merely anti-anti-North Korean, has again blocked a vote in South Korea’s National Assembly on a North Korean human rights law that’s been languishing there since 2005. The law itself is weak bori-cha. It had been watered down until it did little more than fund NGOs seeking direct engagement with the North Korean people. But even as a symbolic gesture, as a beginning, and as a small preemptive apology to history, the bill deserved to pass.

The bill includes provisions to create a North Korean Human Rights Foundation that could fund non-governmental groups to conduct research and seek to improve the human rights situation in North Korea, educate South Koreans about rights conditions in North Korea, and provide humanitarian aid in line with international monitoring standards. The law would also establish a system to document and archive information about rights abuses by the North Korean government and its leaders that could be used for future efforts to pursue accountability for rights crimes, in line with similar international efforts.

The action by South Korea would help intensify international pressure on North Korea over its horrendous rights record, and would bring South Korea in line with other countries focused on rights concerns in North Korea. [Human Rights Watch]

On one hand, Korea’s left wants to use “quiet diplomacy” to address North Korea’s widespread, horrific, and present-day crimes against humanity — quiet diplomacy that in practice has never meant or accomplished anything. On the other hand, it fans the public and often hysterical rage against Japan over crimes against humanity that, as horrible as they were, happened 70 to 90 years ago in a world where mass murder and enslavement briefly became the global norm from Mauthausen to Babi Yar to Nanking to the Kolyma River.

There is no question that those past crimes justify rage. All the more so, when the Japanese government continues, incredibly, to say idiotic things like this. Although, it must be said, Japan has at least managed to pass a North Korean human rights law. That’s more than South Korea can say.

South Koreans’ rage against Japan’s past crimes is both sincere and justified. In the case of South Korea’s political left, it is also breathtakingly hypocritical when viewed alongside its culpable silence about Pyongyang’s present-day “crimes against humanity, arising from ‘policies established at the highest level of State,’” including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

Here is a dismal and undeniable fact: no amount of rage will save even one of the aging Korean women who suffered so much at the hands of the Japanese army so long ago. It may, with a generous assist from some influential idiots in Japan, mean that the last survivors among them die without the small and inadequate measure of compensation promised to them. But fanning anti-Japanese is a convenient way for some Korean politicians — and for the Chinese and North Korean governments — to exploit them for all their political value until the end of their days. And for good reason, at least for South Korea’s cynical politicians and rapacious neighbors: it may help them dissolve a nascent security alliance that every sober-minded observer knows both countries need, thereby endangering millions of people, both born and yet to be born. 

Meanwhile, the world is waiting for South Korea’s rage against what goes on today, even as I write, and even as you read:

• Mr Ahn Myong-chol explained that there is no designated burial spot for inmates or a Korean-style tomb. Instead, they were simply placed in shallow holes in collective burial sites: “They sometimes buried bodies over other bodies. As we are digging the ground and we sometimes found the bones, and so if there is a [prison] mine, then surrounding hills, and mountains would be something like a cemetery. There is no actual cemetery for political prisoners…”

• Mr Kang Chol-hwan remembered that he buried over 300 bodies during his 10 years in Political Prison Camp No. 15 at Yodok. Inmates assigned to bury the bodies stripped them of their clothes so as reuse or barter them. Eventually, the camp authorities simply bulldozed the hill used for burials to turn it into a corn field: “As the machines tore up the soil, scraps of human flesh reemerged from the final resting place; arms and legs and feet, some still some still stockinged, rolled in waves before the bulldozer. I was terrified. One of friends vomited.

The guards then hollowed out a ditch and ordered a few detainees to toss in all the corpses and body parts that were visible on the surface.”

781. Former prisoners and guards interviewed by the Commission all concurred that death was an ever present feature of camp life. In light of the overall secrecy surrounding the camp, it is very difficult to estimate how many camp inmates have been executed, were worked to death or died from starvation and epidemics. However, based on the little the outside world knows about the horrors of the prison camps, even a conservative estimate leads the Commission to find that hundreds of thousands of people have perished in the prison camps since their establishment more than 55 years ago. [U.N. Commission of Inquiry report]

What can still save Korean women, men, and children is for South Koreans to lead the world in speaking out against these crimes, and against the Chinese government for enabling them. That will not happen as long as South Korea is confused and divided, and as long as the rest of the world asks, “Where is South Korea?”

Germany 1945

[As the Germans and the Japanese did before them, they will say they did not know.]

Indeed, for generations, the world will ask, “Where was South Korea?” 

“South Korea arguably has the greatest interest of any country in improving human rights in North Korea, yet unlike some of its allies, it has made no legislative commitment to that task,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Passing this bill would ensure that human rights issues in the North are not pushed aside for political convenience on the Korean peninsula, now or in the future.” [Human Rights Watch]

Modern South Korea’s apathy to the mass murder of its countrymen in the North isn’t just an embarrassment to its own history. It is an embarrassment to human history.

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Update: The Korea Times is now reporting that the bill’s proponents will try again. Hat tip: Jonathan Cheng.

3 Comments

  1. Joshua,
    Have you read the Dailynk article about prisoners from camp 16 being used to dig the tunnels and do the cleanup for all four of North Korea’s nuclear tests?
    Go search and read it. It’s pretty sad.




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