Words matter — but not all of them will emerge from the Trump era with their meanings intact.
Think of “Fake News,” “presidential” and now perhaps “very honorable.” President Trump used the latter two words on Tuesday to refer to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, following months of attacks in which the president interchangeably branded Kim as “little Rocket Man” or “sick puppy.”
Any of those characterizations may strike observers who are aware of what’s at stake as inappropriate. But referring to Kim as “very honorable” may be taking the war of words to the other extreme. Whereas Trump previously ridiculed the authoritarian leader, his newly found praise for Kim in turn belittles the suffering of the millions of people living under him, even if it may be part of a broader strategy to bring him to the negotiation table.
“Kim Jong Un is a dictator, and he’s torturing the North Korean people,” Jihyun Park, a survivor of a North Korean prison camp and Britain-based human rights activist, told The Washington Post on Wednesday, in response to Trump’s comments.
“I'm really angry because Trump must have been aware of the North Korean stories,” said Park, referring to Trump's meeting with North Korean defectors in the Oval Office in February. “He heard the painful stories of North Korean refugees.” Trump and the West, Park said, may care about nuclear weapons, but “they never mention the North Korean people.”
This might be, then, the right moment to remind everyone whom the president is talking about when he refers to the “honorable” man from Pyongyang: a leader whose crimes have been compared with those committed by the Nazis, both by U.N. experts and independent judges.
North Korea’s prisons are as bad as or worse than Nazi camps, according to a judge and Auschwitz survivor
In the North Korean context, comparisons to the Nazis emerge regularly. “The Nazi concentration camps shocked the world. If such a horror is discovered today, shouldn't it prompt a response?” The Washington Post’s editorial board urged in November.
In a story in December that addressed the same question, my colleague Anna Fifield reported on North Korea’s political prisons and accusations that they are as bad as or even worse than the Nazi concentration camps of the Holocaust. The comparison was drawn by Thomas Buergenthal, a former judge on the International Court of Justice who also survived Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen. Together with three other jurists, Buergenthal made the case that Kim should be tried for crimes against humanity.
“I believe that the conditions in the [North] Korean prison camps are as terrible, or even worse, than those I saw and experienced in my youth in these Nazi camps and in my long professional career in the human rights field,” Buergenthal said.
The assessment followed a U.N. Commission of Inquiry report from 2014 and was based on additional testimony provided by former prison guards and prisoners, as well as independent experts. There are hundreds of survivors now living abroad, including Park.
“When I went there, the corridor was full of people. There was no space to put a foot down,” Park recalled on Wednesday. Up to 130,000 “enemies” of the Kim regime may still be held in four prison camps at any given time, according to estimates. “We were tortured and kicked,” recalled Park, who was held because of a previous defection. She said she was eventually smuggled out of North Korea and arrived in Britain in 2008. (Park now works as an Outreach Officer with the refugee organization Connect North Korea that is launching a North Korean community center in Britain.)
Prisoners held inside North Korea may not necessarily have violated any of Kim’s rules themselves, according to other survivors who have described the “guilt by association” concept, which implies that children can be imprisoned for “crimes” committed by their parents or grandparents.
North Korea has rejected the accusations, saying that the camps are normal prisons.
But judges have found evidence for 10 of the 11 internationally recognized war crimes, committed by the Kim regime there
The 2017 report compiled by the three judges concluded that the Kim regime could probably be put on trial for 10 out of 11 internationally recognized war crimes, including enslavement, sexual violence and torture, based on what is currently known about its prison camps.
“There is not a comparable situation anywhere in the world, past or present,” said Judge Navi Pillay, according to Fifield. Based on satellite imagery, the four prison camps are still being used to imprison opponents — a very loosely interpreted category.
Christians also face state persecution and risk being found guilty of political crimes if they practice their religion. If defectors survive the “shoot to kill” policy in place around North Korea’s borders, they are often exposed to extreme violence and punishment if they ever decide to reenter or are abducted abroad.
The Kim regime starves its population
Park said she fled the country twice. The first time she decided to flee, she escaped amid a mass famine in the 1990s, which is believed to have killed as many as 2.5 million people. Even today, a substantial share of the population still suffers from malnutrition, according to U.N. estimates.
“My uncle died in front of me because of starvation,” said Park. She said she had no other choice at the time than to leave the country, even if it meant being sent to a prison camp upon returning.
“I'm so angry,” she said, not only referring to the crimes of Kim, but also to Trump’s remarks about him Tuesday.
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