How extraordinary it is, when you give it a moment's thought, that it was only last week that an American president officially spoke the obvious truth about North Korea. In point of fact, Mr. Bush rather understated matters when he said that Kim Jong-il's government runs "concentration camps." It would be truer to say that the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea, as it calls itself, is a concentration camp. It would be even more accurate to say, in American idiom, that North Korea is a slave state.
This way of phrasing it would not have the legal implication that the use of the word "genocide" has. To call a set of actions "genocidal," as in the case of Darfur, is to invoke legal consequences that are entailed by the U.N.'s genocide convention, to which we are signatories. However, to call a country a slave state is to set another process in motion: that strange business that we might call the working of the American conscience.
It was rhetorically possible, in past epochs of ideological confrontation, for politicians to shout about the "slavery" of Nazism and of communism, and indeed of nations that were themselves "captive." The element of exaggeration was pardonable, in that both systems used forced labor and also the threat of forced labor to coerce or to terrify others. But not even in the lowest moments of the Third Reich, or of the gulag, or of Mao's "Great Leap Forward," was there a time when all the subjects of the system were actually enslaved.
In North Korea, every person is property and is owned by a small and mad family with hereditary power. Every minute of every day, as far as regimentation can assure the fact, is spent in absolute subjection and serfdom. The private life has been entirely abolished. One tries to avoid cliché, and I did my best on a visit to this terrifying country in the year 2000, but George Orwell's 1984 was published at about the time that Kim Il Sung set up his system, and it really is as if he got hold of an early copy of the novel and used it as a blueprint. ("Hmmm … good book. Let's see if we can make it work.")
Actually, North Korea is rather worse than Orwell's dystopia. There would be no way, in the capital city of Pyongyang, to wander off and get lost in the slums, let alone to rent an off-the-record love nest in a room over a shop. Everybody in the city has to be at home and in bed by curfew time, when all the lights go off (if they haven't already failed). A recent nighttime photograph of the Korean peninsula from outer space shows something that no "free-world" propaganda could invent: a blaze of electric light all over the southern half, stopping exactly at the demilitarized zone and becoming an area of darkness in the north.
Concealed in that pitch-black night is an imploding state where the only things that work are the police and the armed forces. The situation is actually slightly worse than indentured servitude. The slave owner historically promises, in effect, at least to keep his slaves fed. In North Korea, this compact has been broken. It is a famine state as well as a slave state. Partly because of the end of favorable trade relations with, and subsidies from, the former USSR, but mainly because of the lunacy of its command economy, North Korea broke down in the 1990s and lost an unguessable number of people to sheer starvation. The survivors, especially the children, have been stunted and malformed. Even on a tightly controlled tour of the place—North Korea is almost as hard to visit as it is to leave—my robotic guides couldn't prevent me from seeing people drinking from sewers and picking up individual grains of food from barren fields. (I was reduced to eating a dog, and I was a privileged "guest.") Film shot from over the Chinese border shows whole towns ruined and abandoned, with their few factories idle and cannibalized. It seems that the mines in the north of the country have been flooded beyond repair.
In consequence of this, and for the first time since the founding of Kim Il Sung's state, large numbers of people have begun to take the appalling risk of running away. If they make it, they make it across the river into China, where there is a Korean-speaking area in the remote adjoining province. There they live under the constant threat of being forcibly repatriated. The fate of the fugitive slave is not pretty: North Korea does indeed operate a system of camps, most memorably described in a book—The Aquariums of Pyongyang, by Kang Chol-Hwan—that ought to be much more famous than it is. Given what everyday life in North Korea is like, I don't have sufficient imagination to guess what life in its prison system must be, but this book gives one a hint.
It seems to me imperative that the human rights movement, hitherto unpardonably tongue-tied about all this, should insistently take up the case of North Korea and demand that an underground railway, or perhaps even an overground one, be established. Any Korean slave who can get out should be welcomed, fed, protected, and assisted to move to South Korea. Other countries, including our own, should announce that they will take specified numbers of refugees, in case the current steady trickle should suddenly become an inundation. The Chinese obviously cannot be expected to take millions of North Koreans all at once, which is why they engage in their otherwise criminal policy of propping up Kim Jong-il, but if international guarantees for runaway slaves could be established, this problem could be anticipated.
Kim Jong-il and his fellow slave masters are trying to dictate the pace of events by setting a timetable of nuclearization, based on a crash program wrung from their human property. But why should it be assumed that their failed state and society are permanent? Another timeline, oriented to liberation and regime change, is what the dynasty most fears. It should start to fear it more. Bravo to President Bush, anyway, for his bluntness.