A day after Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 8, 1941, German death squads in the Polish village of Chelmno gassed Jews in specially equipped vans for the first time. Far from generating banner headlines, the story did not appear in the New York Times until nearly seven months later, on Page 6. Like the Allied powers, the Times consistently ignored or buried such reports until it was too late for 6 million European Jews.
In 2005, the civilized world seems to be deploying the same dismissive, deadly strategy again. I recently returned from debriefing North Korean defectors in Seoul who told me of their involvement in the Pyongyang regime's gassing of political prisoners, dating back to the 1970s and continuing into the 21st century. I traveled to South Korea after officials in Seoul refused to grant a visa to Dr. Lee Byom-Shik (a pseudonym) to come to the United States to serve as a key witness about alleged murders by gassing in North Korea. He was to testify at a Simon Wiesenthal Center conference on human rights abuses in North Korea.
Dr. Lee, 55, is a chemist who told me of his important "achievements" in serving the North Korean regime since the 1970s. He worked with one team that produced bogus Japanese diplomatic passports used by agents to smuggle aboard the bomb that brought down Korean Airlines Flight 001. He helped produce counterfeit $100 bills used by diplomats traveling abroad.
It took an hour into our debriefing for Dr. Lee to get around to the fact that he helped develop deadly agents at a secret underground poison and toxin research institute. In that connection, he matter-of-factly described how, in 1979, he was in charge of gassing two political prisoners. The victims' suffering was documented by scientists, who took notes outside glass-encased gas chambers that were also wired for sound. One prisoner died after 2 1/2 hours, the other after 3 1/2 hours of agony. Then a young scientist, Dr. Lee was rewarded with a medal and promotions for his role in these successful experiments. Twenty-five years later, he expressed no remorse, but his recall of details and dates make him a credible, if frightening, witness.
Another North Korean defector I interviewed was 31-year-old Chun Ji Suang (also a pseudonym). In 1994, while attending a prestigious scientific institute, he was selected to be part of two teams researching various types of gassing -- from slow-acting, untraceable poisons to be used for assassinations to those that would cause instantaneous death. For eight years these scientists constantly moved their base of operations throughout the North Korean gulag. He belonged to Team A, which experimented exclusively on animals. When they successfully concluded an experiment, Team B then used those results on human guinea pigs. Unlike Dr. Lee, this young man is very remorseful. His escape from North Korea was facilitated by a supervisor and other secret sympathizers who urged him to expose Kim Jong Il's atrocities.
Since 2002, defectors among the flood of refugees from North Korea have detailed firsthand accounts of systematic starvation, torture and murder. Enemies of the state are used in experiments to develop new generations of chemical and biological weapons that threaten the world. A microcosm of these horrors is Camp 22, one of 12 concentration camps housing an estimated 200,000 political prisoners facing torture or execution for such "crimes" as being a Christian or a relative of someone suspected of deviation from "official ideology of the state." Another eyewitness, Kwon Hyuk, formerly chief manager at Camp 22, repeated to me what he asserted to the BBC: "I witnessed a whole family being tested on suffocating gas and dying in the gas chamber. . . . The parents were vomiting and dying, but until the very last moment they tried to save kids by doing mouth-to-mouth breathing."
So why no worldwide outrage?
For now it appears that realpolitik trumps distant horrors. Despite heroic efforts by Christian activists on both sides of the Pacific to sound the alarm, the South Korean government views these accusations as unwelcome complications to its problematic and complex relations with the North. Indeed, a foreign ministry official whom I met did not deny that North Korea gassed political prisoners to further its program to develop weapons of mass destruction. He politely stated that Seoul was focusing exclusively on the threat from Pyongyang's nuclear program in the context of the six-nation peace talks. Meanwhile, most South Korean nongovernmental organizations are so committed to the idyllic vision of a reunified Korean Peninsula that they have turned a deaf ear to the horrors inflicted on their own people north of the 38th parallel.
The Western media haven't exactly ignored this story. Instead, they have generally treated it in an offhand manner chillingly reminiscent of how the Holocaust was reported during World War II. For example, the Pentagon just recently sought emergency authority to resume administering the anthrax vaccine to U.S. troops stationed on the Korean Peninsula as well as in the Persian Gulf because of "a significant potential for a military emergency involving a heightened risk to United States military forces of attack." The limited coverage of the story focused not on the threat posed by North Korean chemical and biological weaponry but on the controversy over the safety of inoculating the troops.
North Korea's Mengele-style experimentation with killer agents such as anthrax has not escalated into a mass-murder campaign against the regime's own population, the Allied troops stationed in the Korean DMV or North Korea's neighbors -- not yet. But beyond the nuclear threat, the world has reason to be deeply concerned over how much of this deadly know-how has been transferred to terrorist states or entities.
It isn't necessary to insist on "regime change" as a precondition of dialogue. But the world community -- with the United States, Japan, China and Russia in the lead -- must insist on behavioral change, ameliorating the North's human rights pathologies, before making diplomatic concessions. We should start by identifying -- by name -- those involved in crimes against humanity against their own people, and warning these criminals that eventually they will be held accountable before the bar of justice.
The writer is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a member of the North Korean Freedom Coalition.