May 10, 2005


Worse Than 1984: North Korea, slave state. (Christopher Hitchens, May 2, 2005, Slate)

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.

Not all Holocausts are created equal.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 10, 2005 9:33 AM

Were it not for North Korea's general incompetence, it would have been eliminated years ago. If it actually does detonate a nuclear device, that show of technical expertise will likely hasten its demise (though who occupies the White House after 2008 may also play a factor here).

Posted by: John at May 10, 2005 9:54 AM

Actually I'm pretty sure oj has predicted that Hitch will become a Papist in a few years, given his ideological history...

We should get all of our ground troops out of S Korea. Maybe Kim is crazy enough to think we're chickening out and will provoke something.

Posted by: b at May 10, 2005 9:54 AM

Hitchens is Whittaker Chambers in chrysallis.

Posted by: oj at May 10, 2005 10:22 AM

Hitchens doesn't say anything about it, but the descent of North Korea from mere tyrrany into hell on earth took place in the 1990s, when the "enlightened" Clinton administration was in negotiations with Kim that led to the Carter/Allbright friendship pact. Sort of makes you think twice about the efficacy of diplomatic engagement, doesn't it?

Posted by: Mike Morley at May 10, 2005 11:21 AM

The 'Hell on Earth' aspect of the DPRK resulted from the end of Soviet subsidies. North Korea has yet to replace that economic benefit and the average person certainly lives in penury by any standard. Kim has to maintain the dictatorship at all costs.

As long as the PRC isn't willing to do anything, there isn't a whole lot we can do. We can't invade the place, the people would fight us and the ROK cannot be trusted. In the event a foreigner shoots at a Nork, the ROK and the South Koreans generally might choose to fire on the foreigners too. It is one of the most xenophobic places on earth.

We can't nuke the place. Kim would get a few off and destroy Tokyo, perhaps Seoul and with them much of the world's economy.

About the only thing we can do is hope that there is someone in the inner circle who can put a bullet in Kim's head who isn't himself a nutcase. That and make very clear to Kim that firing a nuke will result in his nation's and his utter destruction. A joint public statement by the 5 parties to the talks might be helpful here.

Posted by: bart at May 10, 2005 1:15 PM

"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."

As Hitch is not American-born, and as he has clearly spent many, many hours reflecting on what distinguishes Americans from the rest of the world, I do hope you all appreciate that this comes close to the ultimate compliment, eloquently expressed.

The fact that your hyper-active consciences can take you on wild rides and to strange places at times is quite secondary.

Posted by: Peter B at May 10, 2005 5:19 PM