It's not easy to talk to people about North Korea. The story is so awful, and so static, what more is there to do, or even to say? This speech by Adrian Hong, a strategic consultant who also co-founded a U.S.-based NGO that assists North Korean escapees, starts with that question. His 10-minute speech, which you can view here, makes a powerful case for the moral urgency of the long-running North Korean crisis.
"One challenge I always have when I speak about North Korea is I run out of adjectives for how bad things are. And many of you that follow policy or human rights situations oftentimes get jaded with numbers," Hong begins, speaking at an event for Melanie Kirkpatrick's book Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad, sitting between Kirkpatrick and Joseph Kim, a young escapee whose journey her book chronicles. "It's very easy for us to write off bad things because we just assume these are bad things that happen 'over there,' and many times they don't necessarily affect us. And the challenge with North Korea in particular is that things are so bad on such a scale and scope that it sounds fake. It sounds unfathomable, it's impossible to really comprehend."
Hong discusses the immense dangers that North Korean refugees face after crossing the border into China, where they can face imprisonment, sex trafficking and often a return home to much worse. "To go through that much risk, whatever you're escaping from back home has to be pretty bad," he says. "Extraordinarily bad. Far worse than whatever you're facing to get out of that place. So North Korea is that thing. It is that bad." He recalls visiting a Chinese prison near the border, where an official told him that they sent refugees back into North Korea every Monday and Thursday. "Almost like it's milk day or trash day," Hong says.
[The prison official] told me that the young boys in particular would always beg him, they called him [older brother], can you cut my hair? And you realize that the reason they asked for that is because North Korea has rules for how long and what style your hair is supposed to be for males and females. And if your hair is a different style or longer length then that means you've been out of the country. Not only out of the country but out of the country for a long period of time. So if the hair is cut then the kid's got a shot at going back and saying "oh I got lost" or "I was there for a day, I tried to get some food or work quickly, I wasn't there for six months or a year or two."
Everybody involved with North Korea knows what's happening. There's no illusion as to how bad the regime is. The illusion is in the sense that we can't solve it, that we think that this is an inevitable crisis that cannot be fixed or that we have no right or ability to do anything about it. I think that North Korea is not just an issue for human rights. This place is almost this black hole for modern civilization.
North Korea-watchers have debated for years over how long the country's system can last, but few think the answer is "forever," including Hong. He's more assertive than most analysts, though, in arguing that the world, outside of China, can do much for North Korea right now. His comparison of North Korea's gulags to the Holocaust also goes further than many others would. But it's worth reading or watching his argument for what makes the crisis unique.
I think that there will be a day when North Korea is free. It may be a hundred years from now or maybe 10 years from now, but that day will come. And I think that most of us involved in various government or policy positions will realize that there was much more we could have done and that the circumstances were worse than we had anticipated.
This is very different from the Holocaust in one very important measure. It's that we have documentable, verifiable, overwhelming evidence that anybody can access. There was evidence during the Holocaust that policymakers had access to that that they did not choose to act on that they could have. And many people will say, "If I was in that position back then, I would have acted differently."
Well, today, everybody watching this online or on C-Span or in the room can go home and Google or Bing or whatever you like and you can find concentration camps. Joseph [Kim] sat there on Google and showed me the route he took to walk from home to school every day. The fact that he can do that in 2012 means that we have overwhelming evidence of what is happening.
... At some point, it will have a hard or soft landing, at some point those people will be free, and the question mark is how many people die to get to that point. And the more we do now, the more we do to preemptively prepare and act, the lower that number will be. Because there's no question that it will end some way, in a big way, and it will be the issue for everyone in the region, if not the world, to deal with.
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