Three Kernels of Corn

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Monday, December 15, 2008

WE TEND to think of concentration camps as belonging in history books, but Shin Dong-hyuk reminds us of the uglier truth. Mr. Shin, who is 26, was born in such a camp in North Korea and lived there until he escaped in 2005. He is, in fact, the only person known to have made a successful escape from one of that nation's prison camps, which hold an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people.

Mr. Shin's story, which Post reporter Blaine Harden movingly recounted in an article last week, was horrifying on a couple of counts. The casual, routine brutality of the camps is, as the article noted, almost unfathomable. Part of Mr. Shin's finger was cut off as punishment for accidentally dropping a sewing machine in the factory of the camp where he was held. He bears scars from the torture of being, essentially, roasted over a charcoal fire. When he was 14, he watched as his mother was hanged and his brother shot to death, ostensibly for trying to escape. In a memoir, he writes of the "lucky day" when he found, in a pile of cow dung, three kernels of corn that he was able to wash off and eat.

It's horrifying, on another level, that only 500 people in South Korea, where Mr. Shin lives, have bought his book. Many Koreans don't want to hear about human rights abuses in the north; they're worried that the Communist regime might collapse and leave the more prosperous south with a costly burden of rehabilitation. And South Korea isn't alone in tuning out the horrors. The United States is more concerned with containing North Korea's nuclear ambitions. The State Department's stunning lack of urgency was captured in a recent statement from its assistant secretary for Asia, Christopher R. Hill: "Each country, including our own, needs to improve its human rights record." Japan is focused on Japanese citizens abducted forcibly to North Korea. China doesn't want instability across its border.

Mr. Hill's larger point is that the United States should be practical in relations with the north and not simply denounce abuses so that America can feel good about itself. We support his efforts to negotiate with the regime. It's worth noting, though, that last week the north yet again backtracked on a nuclear-related agreement it had made and Mr. Hill had vouched for. It will continue to honor such agreements, or not, based on a reading of its own interests, not on whether its negotiating partners do or don't speak honestly. We think there's an inverse relationship between a regime's trustworthiness on any subject and its propensity to abuse its own people. We also believe that it should not be left to the lone escapee from North Korea's gulag to speak out about its horror.

High school students in America debate why President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn't bomb the rail lines to Hitler's camps. Their children may ask, a generation from now, why the West stared at far clearer satellite images of Kim Jong Il's camps, and did nothing.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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