Fri, May 02, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Not-so-subtle message for Korean Peninsula from Iraq war

Why must the South Korean government keep up the pretense that the regime in North Korea is not oppressive, murderous and intensely dangerous?

By Shim Jae-hoon

It's a marvel of modern-day communications. From the comfort of our living room, we follow every gory detail of the war in Iraq day after day, courtesy of CNN. But why is it that the more we watch the fall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the more we imagine the fall that awaits North Korea's Kim Jong-il?

First come the startling similarities between the two dictators. Saddam has been operating a vast prison system to detain his opponents. But that pales next to the gulag system operated by Kim Jong-il, which is much bigger in scale. American troops searching Saddam's palaces have found US$650 million in cash stashed in his vault. Kim, according to a relative of his who defected to the South, always keeps 50kg of gold bullion and hundreds of thousands of US dollars in cash at each of his palaces. Saddam has "heroic" statues all over Iraq. But in size and number, they are no match for the 42,000 busts and statues of Kim's father, the late Kim Il-sung, which dot the North Korean landscape. Some are even coated in gold.

The day Kim Jong-il falls from power will be quite a spectacular day, for mobs similar to those in Baghdad are likely to descend on statues of his father as well as on those of him. The blood-curdling jail cells that once held political prisoners will be broken open. Torture chambers, dark and dank, will be opened and exhibited to the world. Even the gallows, with its noose hanging over a yawning hole in the wooden planks below, will be retained for posterity to see.

A lot of South Koreans have already seen much in the way of violent political changes. Prison gates were broken open in Pyongyang when UN forces captured the city in 1950, freeing many anti-communists. In April, 1960 then South Korean president Syngman Rhee's statue was pulled down and dragged by student demonstrators in Seoul, much like the way in which Iraqi people beat on Saddam's statue with their shoes two weeks ago. On May 21, 1980, we saw jubilant crowds take up arms and parade in open cars in Kwangju city, in protest against army general Chun Doo-hwan's coup.

Judging by the degree of repression in North Korea, Iraq under Saddam would have been qualified of hosting a congress on world democracy. North Koreans have no right to move from one city to another without pass. Their radio and TV sets have dials fixed to official channels so they have no exposure to the outside world. The North resembles a gigantic Stalinist gulag, with concentration camps detaining some 200,000 "ideologically unreliable" people, who work and live behind iron fences or brick walls reaching four meters high. Many subsist on 500g of cereals a day. We have a vivid description of this life in a living hell reported by lucky escapees such as Kang Chol-hwan, in his account Aquariums of Pyongyang.

It's not just North Koreans who have fallen victim to Kim Jong-il's tyranny. His agents have kidnapped over a dozen Japanese citizens to serve as language instructors for Pyongyang's spies. Over 3,700 South Koreans -- fishermen, farmers, students, priests, even passengers in a hijacked Korean Airlines aircraft -- have been seized and kept in the North long after the signing of the 1953 armistice agreement. Not a single one of the Koreans have been sent back.

And yet, when the war in Iraq began, the government-run Human Rights Commission in Seoul opposed sending a battalion of army engineers to help the coalition forces, saying it was against the human rights of the Iraqi people. But on April 16 in Geneva, when the UN Human Rights Commission submitted a resolution censuring North Korea for conducting public executions and maintaining large prison camps, South Korea refused to cast a vote, on the grounds it could provoke the North to keep its nuclear development program.

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