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Bush Meets Privately With Noted N. Korean Defector (Peter Baker and Glenn Kessler, June 14, 2005, Washington Post)
President Bush met privately yesterday with a well-known North Korean defector who spent 10 years in a prison camp and has since become an outspoken critic of his homeland's government, a move that could provoke Pyongyang just as it was reviving stalled nuclear talks.

Bush invited Kang Chol Hwan, a journalist and director of the Democracy Network Against North Korean Gulag, to visit with him in the Oval Office and recount his tale of suffering in North Korea, where he was arrested in 1977 at age 9 and had to eat rats, cockroaches and snakes to survive. The White House did not list the meeting on the president's public schedule, but a spokesman later confirmed it.

According to aides, Bush has been fascinated with Kang's story ever since he began reading the former prisoner's book, "The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in a North Korean Gulag," published in English in 2001. Bush has recommended the book to senior White House and Bush administration officials, who have been poring through it lately as well.

"He found the book compelling and wanted to talk to the author," said spokesman Frederick L. Jones II. "These are issues that are of great interest to the president -- freedom and democracy."

Anyone who still doesn't grasp why the President is so determined to make this Liberty's Century they ought to follow his lead and read this horrifying book. Kang Chol-Hwan's reasonably wealthy family actually moved voluntarily to North Korea, from Japan, because his grandmother in particular believed in the efficacy of socialism and the promise of Kim il-Sung's supposed utopia. Once there they found not just an economic train-wreck, but a vicious police state where they were automatically viewed with suspicion for having lived in Japan. Though it took the grandmother some time to admit it, the rest quickly realized they'd made a terrible mistake and the grandfather soon ran afoul of authorities. Practically the entire family--though not his mother--ended up being sent to the Yodok concentration camp in 1977 and spent the next ten years there.

Mr. Chol-Hwan's descriptions of life at Yodok, which served as a work and re-education camp for individuals and families, is harrowing. Beatings, starvation, debilitating disease, mine accidents, and the like were the staples of daily life. Here's just one extended passage to give some flavor of the horrors he recounts:
In the spring of 1981, I was assigned to help bury the bodies of prisoners who had perished during the previous winter, when the frost-hardened earth had made timely interment difficult. As with any detail, the work was carried out after school; but since it was considered somewhat unusual, we were rewarded with a few noodles to supplement our ration of corn. This would have sufficed to make interring bodies a desirable detail, but the work offered another very practical advantage. The burial team could strip the corpse of its last remaining clothes and either reuse them or barter them for other essentials. But the fringe benefits came at a price. Since Korean tradition requires that people be buried on a height, we had to carry the bodies up a mountain or to the top of a hill. We naturally preferred the hills at the center of camp to the steep mountain slopes near Yodok's perimeter. Their proximity allowed us to follow tradition without traversing tens of kilometers. But the neighboring hills eventually became overcrowded with corpses, and one day the authorities announced we would no longer be allowed to bury our dead there.

We thought the order had been given for health reasons, but we soon found out how wrong we were. I was walking back to the village with my team one evening after a day of gathering herbs up in the mountains, when we were overtaken by a terrible stench. As we walked on, the odor grew stronger and stronger until we finally came upon the cause. There were the guards, bulldozing the top of the hill where we'd buried so many of our dead. They actually dared to set upon our corpses! They didn't even fear disturbing the souls of the dead. An act of sacrilege held no weight for them compared to the possibility of growing a little more corn. As the machines tore up the soil, scraps of human flesh reemerged from the final resting place; arms and legs and feet, some still stockinged, rolled in waves before the bulldozer. I was terrified. One of my friends vomited. Then we ran away, our noses tucked in our sleeves, trying to avoid the ghastly scent of flesh and putrefaction. The guards then hollowed out a ditch and ordered a few detainees to toss in all the corpses and body parts that were visible on the surface. Three or four days later the freshly plowed field lay ready for a new crop of corn. I knew several people from my village who were assigned to plant and weed it. Apparently, it was horrific work. Since only the larger remains had been disposed of during the initial cleanup, the field-workers were constantly coming upon various body parts. Oddly enough, the corn grew well on the plot for several years running.
Of course, that corn rising on a tide of bones is one of the keys to crushing the humanity out of the inmates in a gulag, turning hunger and desperation into weapons against the human spirit:
I attended some fifteen executions during my time in Yodok. With the exception of the man who was caught stealing 650 pounds of corn, they were all for attempted escape. No matter how many executions I saw, I was never able to get used to them, was never calm enough to gather herbs while waiting for the show to begin. I don't blame the prisoners who unaffectedly went about their business. People who are hungry don't have the heart to think about others. Sometimes they can't even care for their own family. Hunger quashes ma's will to help his fellow man. I've seen fathers steal food from their own children's lunchboxes. As they scarf down the corn, they have only one overpowering desire: to placate, if even for just one moment, that feeling of insufferable need.

Ceding to hunger, acting like an animal: these are things anyone is capable of, professor, worker, and peasant alike. I saw for myself how little these distinctions mattered, how thoroughly hunger alters one's reason. A person dying of hunger will grab a rat and eat it without hesitation. Yet as soon as he begins to regain his strength, his dignity returns. and he thinks to himself, I'm a human being. How could I have descended so low? This high-mindedness never lasts long. The hunger inevitably comes back to gnaw at him again, and he's off to set another trap. [...]

At Yodok...pity and compassion rarely extended beyond the family circle into that world peopled with vicious guards and snitches intent on betrayal. When my work team was ordered to bury the body of a widely despised informant, we all began to curse under our breath. Carry that son of a bitch? No way! As far as we were concerned, he could rot right where he was. But the guards threatened punishment, and we had no choice but to haul him up the mountain. With each step we became more enraged at the thought of giving this man a decent burial. Intent on getting it over with as quickly as possible, we dug an undersized hole, then folded the cadaver and stomped it with our feet to make it fit. What a picture we must have made, five gleeful kids kicking a cadaver into its grave. He had comported himself like a dog, and he deserved to be buried like a filthy beast. Yet what about us? What had become of us?

The death of compassion was responsible for worse acts than this. I saw fathers, released from the camps with their bodies broken and depleted, turned out of their children's homes, hungry mouths with nothing left to give. Sometimes the fathers were left by the side of the road to die of hunger. Only their demise could bring any good, by clearing the way for the family's possible rehabilitation. The system seemed specifically designed to stamp out the last vestiges of generosity.
Mr. Chol-Hwan's family was eventually released and when he began to get in trouble with the authorities again he fled to China rather than risk being sent back to the camps. Today he's become an accidental political activist, trying to get the help of America and others for the people of North Korea he left behind. This memoir, though not a great work of literature like those of Solzhenitsyn or Wiesel, is every bit as compelling and cries out for action and rebukes our moral lassitude. The President is right to hand it around like samizdata, but should be giving regular speeches about the conditions in North Korea and demanding change, as Ronald Reagan did of the Soviet Union, and we should be prepared to forcibly change the regime if necessary. Meanwhile, as Mr. Chol-Hwan's co-author, Pierre Rigoulot -- who also helped compile the Black Book of Communism and would appear to be responsible for helping to place the experiences related here into a wider context -- writes in his introduction:
"[T]he regime is ubuesque. Which is to say grotesque and bloody.

Reading this book is a first step toward making the repression in North Korea a major concern for human rights defenders around the world.
It comes decades late but not too late for us to do something.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Kang Chol-Hwan Links:

    -PHOTO: President George W. Bush welcomes Chol-hwan Kang to the Oval Office Monday, June 13, 2005 (
    -PROFILE: Child prisoner: Kang Chol Hwan: North Korean imprisoned at age 10 for grandparents’ dissent (NBC News, Jan. 15, 2003)
    -ESSAY: Gulag Diplomacy: Bush risked angering Kim Jong Il again by hosting a politically sensitive guest (BILL POWELL, 6/20/05, TIME)
    -ARTICLE: Bush Meets N.Korean Defector Behind 'Aquariums Of Pyongyang' (6/14/05, Chosun Ilbo)
    -Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights
    -Chosun Journal
    -Free North Korea
    -One Free Korea
    -North Korea News (EIN)
    -ESSAY: Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth Is: Support for the Victims of Tyranny (Charles Colson, June 20, 2005, Breakpoint)
    -ARTICLE: North Korean Human Rights (VOA News, 17 June 2005)
    -ESSAY: North Korea's Horrific Gulag (Phil Brennan, Feb. 13, 2003,
    -INTERVIEW: with David Hawk: Researcher for U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and author of The Hidden Gulag (Chosun Journal, February 1, 2004)
    -ESSAY: Bracketing Pyongyang (New York Sun, June 17, 2005)
    -ESSAY: The power of presidential solidarity (Jeff Jacoby, June 23, 2005, Boston Globe)
    -ESSAY: Borrowing from Ronald Reagan (Cal Thomas, June 16, 2005, Crosswalk)
    -ESSAY: Got Gulag?: North Korea does. (James S. Robbins, 6/09/05, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE END OF NORTH KOREA By Nicholas Eberstadt (AARON L. FRIEDBERG, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Hermit Nuclear Kingdom (Nicholas D. Kristof, 2/10/05, NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES: "Kang Chol-Hwan" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES: "Pierre Rigoulot" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Aqariums of Pyongyang (Peter Gordon, The Asian Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Aquariums of Pyongyang (John Derbyshire, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of Aquariums of Pyongyang (Thomas R. Eddlem, New American)
    -REVIEW: of Aquariums of Pyongyang (John M. Handley, American Diplomacy)
    -REVIEW: of Aquariums of Pyongyang (Jerry Winzig)
    -REVIEW: of Aquariums of Pyongyang (Hugh Dillon, Sydney Morning Herald)

Book-related and General Links:

    -Korean Quarterly
    -ESSAY: Where the Right Is Right (NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, 7/24/05, NY Times)
    -ARTICLE: U.S. May Be Trying to Isolate N. Korea (Barbara Demick, May 28, 2005, LA Times)
    -ESSAY: What happens after North Korea falls? (Michael Barone, 5/26/05, US News)