Where were you on 4 June 1989, when thousands of reform-minded Chinese students were shot in Tiananmen Square? Where were you on 11 September 2001, when hijacked planes were flown into the World Trade Centre? And where were you on 17 February 2014, when a UN report first told you about the atrocities being committed in North Korea?
A year-long investigation by the Commission of Inquiry has, for the first time, built up a picture of what is going on inside this obscure, hermetic kingdom. Witnesses, including many escapees, have helped piece it together, and the details are horrific. Inquiry chairman Michael Kirby (pictured, right) notes the “many parallels” between the evidence he had heard and crimes committed by the Nazis.
Over 372 pages, we learn about a network of secret prison camps and the regime’s systematic use of “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape and other grave sexual violence and persecution on political, religious and gender grounds”. It is twisted barbarism on a national scale, and like Tiananmen Square and 9/11, it will register on the world’s seismograph for decades to come.
To condense so many harrowing accounts into a few paragraphs is impossible, but examples can be given. One inmate tells of how his camp duties included burning the bodies of those who had starved to death and using the remains as fertiliser. Others speak of pulling cart-loads of rotting bodies. “The Commission has not been able to establish the fate of the large numbers of prisoners that remain unaccounted for,” record the authors, solemnly.
We’ve seen this before, of course. More than anyone, Jews know the depravities of the human condition, the depths to which man sinks and the ease with which he inflicts suffering. It makes the Commission’s findings gut-wrenchingly familiar.
The more you read, the more you understand Kirby’s comparison. It’s the efficiency of it, the normalcy of cruelty. “Torture is an established feature of interrogation,” investigators explain. “Officials regard it as entirely normal. Some interrogation facilities have been specially outfitted to conduct more sophisticated torture. High-ranking officials instruct juniors on torture techniques.”
Keep reading, about the woman immersed in cold water for hours, barely able to breathe. About the man who has long needles driven under his fingernails and a water/chilli concoction poured into his nose. About the group crammed into a small cage for hours at a time “so that the circulation of blood to the extremities becomes interrupted, parts of the body swell up and victims turn a rusty brown colour”.
Read about how agents beat an old woman for 15 days because her son fled to China, only for her to die a day after he returned. Hear how one witness, a former policeman, was trained by senior officers to cut off a suspect’s blood circulation using straps, while simultaneously placing the suspect in positions to inflict the maximum level of pain. You can even learn the names of these positions: the plane, the pigeon and the motorcycle, to name but some.
Who are these inmates imprisoned for life, without ever seeing a judge? “Often their only transgression is to express themselves on political questions, to try to leave the country, to hold a religious belief or to exercise other human rights,” says the report. “Many are not accused of any personal wrongdoing and are incarcerated based solely on the principle of guilt by family association. Some are even born prisoners.” All this, remember, in what North Korean officials call “Paradise on Earth”.
This report is the tip of the iceberg in terms of testimony. Only 240 witnesses have so far told their story, but satellite imagery (above, left) and accounts from guards and inmates suggest 120,000-200,000 still in these camps. Think how many others have not been heard. Think what else has gone untold.
What can we do? In truth, options are limited. North Korea is armed to the teeth, its indoctrinated masses ready to die for chubby dictator Kim Jong-un (pictured, right). Sanctions are already in-place following nuclear weapons testing and diplomatic relations cannot be withdrawn because the North only really talks to China, which seems increasingly unable to influence it.
Perhaps all we can do right now is read the report, see the sketches of skeletal inmates eating snakes and mice, and begin to believe that a seven-year-old girl could be beaten to death over a few grains of food, or that a boy could have his finger chopped off for accidentally dropping machine, or that a mother could be forced to drown her newborn baby in a bowl of water because the father is Chinese.
Because, as an emotive Yad Vashem statement read: “Far too often, we express regret after the fact for not stopping such crimes as they occur. Today, it cannot be said that the world does not have the testimonies, the information and the understanding in real time to bring about immediate action.”