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Asher '15: North Korea: our generation’s moment

In light of the country’s recent nuclear testing, it’s a safe bet we’ll be hearing about North Korea a fair amount in the coming months. It’s no secret that North Korea is an extremely oppressive place — one of the last strongholds of totalitarian communist government. Kim Jong-Un, like his father Kim Jong-Il before him, is the object of more or less constant ridicule here in the United States and around the world. It’s not as if the North Korean government has been keeping a low profile.

It may be surprising then, that I am arguing we need to start paying more attention to North Korea and start taking its government more seriously.

More specifically, we need to begin putting pressure on our leaders to look at North Korea’s forced labor camps not, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, “as mere distractions from stopping its nuclear weapons and missile programs,” but as the issue that most requires our immediate attention.

For those who don’t realize the scale of North Korea’s forced labor camps — or their existence — one estimate from the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea places the number of people being held in the country’s labor camps at 200,000 and the number of those dead from “torture, starvation, disease and execution” at 400,000.

One such camp is the infamous Hoeryong, usually referred to simply as “Camp 22,” which covers around 500 square miles. Defectors report that within its confines, men, women and children are worked to death in mines and factories, savaged by guards and guard dogs alike, and public executions are carried out in which children are forced to participate. There are no conceivable bounds to human cruelty for the men who run North Korea’s forced labor camps.

They aren’t going to close on their own, either. The horrible fact is that the camps serve important roles for the North Korean ruling elite, both politically and practically. They keep political dissidents in check — often by eliminating them entirely — and stave off any possible revolution. Part of how they accomplish this goal is by breaking down families — “rooting out class enemies for three generations,” in the words of Kim Jong-Il. This means children are often born into camps, either dying in infancy — some suffocated by guards in front of their mothers — or growing up knowing only despair and cruelty.

We know these camps are there because we can see them. Our satellites are so good, in fact, that we can even make out the individual people in them.

What’s our excuse? What are we going to tell our children when they ask us why we let millions of people die — including those who have died from famine, the death toll already reaches into the millions — and did nothing? Where were the protests, the pressure on our government representatives?

We’ll just have to tell them what older generations told us about why we didn’t bomb the train tracks to Auschwitz or help the Tutsis in Rwanda: “I don’t know.”

There are steps governmental bodies can take to put more pressure on the North Korean government. We can tighten and enforce existing sanctions to put pressure on the ruling elite. The United Nations Human Rights Council can indict North Korea’s leaders and “make aid conditional on concrete goals such as the closure of forced-labor camps.” Some have even advocated military action. I have neither the expertise nor the authority to say what steps would be best. What I do know is we need to change not only our conversation but also our actions.

The first step is to make shutting down Camp 22 and all others like it a central focus of our generation’s human rights legacy by treating it with the seriousness the topic demands. It’s all well and good to make jokes about Kim Jong-Un’s weight, but political cartoons alone didn’t stop Stalin, and memes alone won’t stop Kim. Until we show those in power that we care about stopping the ongoing atrocities in North Korea, it is almost guaranteed nothing will happen. Even if the U.S. Department of State or the U.N. does take action on North Korea, labor camps will inevitably take a backseat to the nuclear issue unless popular sentiment dictates otherwise.

And even if it does, it’s a stretch. But it would be shameful of us not to learn from history and at least try.



Adam Asher ’15 is studying classics and political science, and can be followed on Twitter (@asheradams). For more information on this topic, visit


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