What a week in deaths. We already talked about Christopher Hitchens. On Sunday, we learned that the great Czech playwright, revolutionary and president Vaclav Havel died. On the other end of the spectrum was Kim Jong-il. Or as the Associated Press put it:
Kim Jong Il, North Korea's mercurial and enigmatic longtime leader, has died of heart failure. He was 69.
"Mercurial and enigmatic longtime leader," eh? Is that how they spell "murderous Communist dictator" these days? I guess so.
Any religion angles here? Well, see, that's tricky. Hitchens, commenting on the giant mausoleums and parades of North Korea, said it "seemed to fuse classical Stalinism with a contorted form of the deferential, patriarchal Confucian ethos."
Apparently the people of North Korea aren't just starving, they're subjected to racist and nationalistic propaganda and are confused about their relative position in the world. The food bags countries send them are said to be given to Kim Jong-il out of respect and terror.
I'm reminded of this old piece in The Guardian about the torture chambers Kim's regime ran:
In the remote north-eastern corner of North Korea, close to the border of Russia and China, is Haengyong. Hidden away in the mountains, this remote town is home to Camp 22 - North Korea's largest concentration camp, where thousands of men, women and children accused of political crimes are held.
Now, it is claimed, it is also where thousands die each year and where prison guards stamp on the necks of babies born to prisoners to kill them.
The piece goes through the first-hand testimonies from defectors about execution and torture, including gas chambers with chemical experiments run on humans. It tells of whole families put in glass chambers and gassed while scientists take notes.
This is difficult to read, but here are some anecdotes from a worker and prisoner:
He explains how he had believed this treatment was justified. 'At the time I felt that they thoroughly deserved such a death. Because all of us were led to believe that all the bad things that were happening to North Korea were their fault; that we were poor, divided and not making progress as a country.
'It would be a total lie for me to say I feel sympathetic about the children dying such a painful death. Under the society and the regime I was in at the time, I only felt that they were the enemies. So I felt no sympathy or pity for them at all.'
His testimony is backed up by Soon Ok-lee, who was imprisoned for seven years. 'An officer ordered me to select 50 healthy female prisoners,' she said. 'One of the guards handed me a basket full of soaked cabbage, told me not to eat it but to give it to the 50 women. I gave them out and heard a scream from those who had eaten them. They were all screaming and vomiting blood. All who ate the cabbage leaves started violently vomiting blood and screaming with pain. It was hell. In less than 20 minutes they were quite dead.'
No one knows how many prisoners were held in various centers but one camp alone held 50,000. And why?
Most are imprisoned because their relatives are believed to be critical of the regime. Many are Christians, a religion believed by Kim Jong-il to be one of the greatest threats to his power. According to the dictator, not only is a suspected dissident arrested but also three generations of his family are imprisoned, to root out the bad blood and seed of dissent.
Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said: 'For too long the horrendous suffering of the people of North Korea, especially those imprisoned in unspeakably barbaric prison camps, has been met with silence ... It is imperative that the international community does not continue to turn a blind eye to these atrocities which should weigh heavily on the world's conscience.'
That Kim Jong-il was so suspect of Christianity is interesting. A girlfriend of mine who grew up under Communism in Czechoslovakia became a Christian and a protester the same way -- via her local congregation.
But the fact of North Korea's existence and the horrific suffering its people have endured -- psychologically, physically and spiritually -- is staggering.
As we look at coverage in the coming days, I wonder whether we'll see more about what really is going on in that country or more descriptions about mercurial, enigmatic, longtime leaders. (And for those curious, please check out this awesomely comprehensive list of all the titles Kim Jong-il bequeathed upon himself. My favorite has to be "Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love"