Judging from the attention it’s getting in this country, you’d think the chief thing wrong with North Korea’s prison system is that it holds an American citizen, Kenneth Bae of Lynnwood.
Bae was arrested in North Korea last November, imprisoned and later sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for “hostile acts” against the country’s government. It’s not clear what Bae’s supposed crimes actually were; he may have bad-mouthed the regime or engaged in Christian proselytizing.
It’s an outrage that North Korea is holding an American citizen on such specious grounds. The 45-year-old man appears to be dying by degrees; a recent video suggests that he’s lost as much as 50 pounds in prison.
Bae is the latest in a string of Americans seized in North Korea and held to squeeze diplomatic concessions out of the United States.
This problem is a lot bigger than one American, though. Bae is probably getting better treatment than most of his fellow captives in North Korea’s inhuman prisons.
Human rights advocates have been trying for years to call the world’s attention to these hellholes, so far without much success.
Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, created the system in the 1950s along the lines of Stalin’s gulags and Mao’s re-education camps. When Kim Jong Un inherited power in late 2011, there were hopes he’d abandon his dynasty’s crimes against humanity. No such luck.
The United Nations, to its credit, has launched a Commission of Inquiry to investigate North Korea’s gulags. At hearings in Seoul in late August, it heard from former prisoners who’d witnessed starvation, mutilation, infanticide and public executions.
One 34-year-old woman spoke of a mother beaten by guards until she submitted to their orders to drown her own infant. A man recounted how guards chopped off his finger after he accidentally dropped a sewing machine.
In some ways, the North Korean gulags are actually more cruel than Stalin’s. Kim Il Sung, for example, instituted the practice of imprisoning not only political dissidents but their parents and children also. Babies born in the camps have spent their entire lives in them for the crime of picking the wrong father or mother.
Bae’s immediate prospects don’t look good. North Korean leaders recently agreed to talk with a U.S. envoy about his release, but they cancelled the visit Friday. He’ll likely be set free after some former U.S. leader of suitable rank goes to Korea and dignifies Kim Jong Un in front of the cameras.
That shouldn’t end the outrage.
Bae is fortunate: His face and name are known, and powerful people want him back in the United States. When – we hope – he is released, he’ll leave behind tens of thousands of faceless, nameless Koreans enduring unspeakable misery at the hands of the world’s most sadistic government. They shouldn’t be forgotten.