Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Darkness of Heart, by Prof. Ra Jong Yil

On May 14th, 2012, Professor Ra Jong Yil of Hanyang University, a Roh Moo Hyun-era ambassador in both Tokyo and London, as well as a former head of the South Korean National Intelligence Service, gave a keynote address to an international conference on North Korean human rights in LA.

The speech, which I was lucky enough to see beforehand, is very much worth reading for a number of reasons; however, primary among these is that Professor Ra, an avowed progressive figure "from way back" and someone close to the very heart of the Sunshine Policy itself, seems to be on the verge of playing a role in the election battle of de facto Saenuri Party leader Park Geun Hye this year.

It is hard to envision at this stage what might emerge from such a combination of conservative politics that would hopefully be more compassionate than those of Lee Myung Bak and progressive thought that hopefully would have learned the lessons, both good and bad, of the Sunshine Policy era. Of course, we cannot forget that both the Democratic United Party and North Korea would want to have a say in what emerged from it, too.

But in any case, this is a good time to start reading the tea leaves, and I cannot think of a better place to do that than with 'The Darkness of Heart- On the Prolonged Abuse of Human Rights by State Power.'

The Darkness of Heart - On the Prolonged Abuse of Human Rights by State Power

Ra Jong Yil
University Distinguished Professor
Hanyang University

Gang Hang was a Confucian scholar and Korean civil servant in the 16th-17th Century (1567-1618) taken prisoner along with his family by Japanese soldiers invading Korea at the time. The entire family suffered unbearable hardships and humiliations during and after their forcible removal to Japan. In one incident, one of the children of the family, just eight years of age, began to throw up on the ship after drinking sea water out of thirst. A Japanese soldier came along, picked the child up and simply threw him into the sea in full view of his parents, who had to sit helplessly by while their child struggled for breath and ultimately drowned.

However, the most moving part of Kang’s autobiographical memoir is not the account of suffering. When the captives finally reached Nagasaki they collapsed in the streets, unable to move, completely exhausted by starvation, exposure and fatigue. It was the people of the town who took pity on them, coming forward to offer bowls of millet gruel and reproaching Hideyoshi, the ruler of Japan, for wantonly launching a war and vicitimizing innocent people.

It was a moment of great awakening for Gang Hang, and probably his redemption as well. He realized there and then that human beings are all the same; basically kind in heart and capable of empathizing with others in need regardless of national or political divides. There are no inherently evil people - only that a particular system of power forces some to commit inhuman crimes. He survived years of captivity in Japan before finally making his way back to Korea, leaving a memoir, Ganyangrog, behind for posterity.

Would this be possible under a system of modern day totalitarianism? Could we guard our hearts and preserve even a small degree of autonomy, human warmth and light against the overwhelming control, weight and pressure of a state power aimed at the total definition of our existence? What would be our predicament under a regime determined to eradicate the very meaning of our existence? For instance, Elie Wiesel describes in the moving account of his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp the gradual, if not total, eclipse of humanity under some of the most excruciating experiences to have been constructed and managed by fellow human beings. However, what the people who survive miss out of their testimony is the all-pervading nature of the repercussions of such atrocities.

In the memories of those who suffer the hardships, the persecutors understandably remain as simple villains, mere personifications of evil, machines in human form, sporting with torture. However, cruelties committed by human beings in whatever form affect not only the victims but also the others - participants in the act, passive spectators and even the perpetrators themselves. The persecutors are victims of their own actions in that they forfeit at least a part of their human heart, whether they are aware of this or not - creating depravity in humanity in the long run.

If the first casualty of war is truth, the first casualty of abuse of human beings may be human hearts, particularly when the abuse takes place under the aegis of state power and is conducted over a prolonged period of time.

Unfortunately, the suffering of human beings at the hands of other human beings did not stop with the last century; it continues in the present age. It takes many different forms and takes place in various circumstances. One such circumstance involves the implosion of a proper political order that can keep law and order –a chaos stemming from the failure of statehood. Yet another involves a state system with the full power of law enforcement turned against its own citizens. There are differences in duration, too. It can be relatively short lived and end when the state of chaos is terminated or when the state in question falls apart. There still are certain places in the world where people suffer deprivations and terror because of the breakdown of order; anarchy with no properly organized state to keep order and protect them. These anomalies will hopefully be corrected through the restoration of order, either through the successful building of a new state or by the intervention of external influences.

However, the worst cases are those atrocities committed by and in the name of the state against a section of the people that go on and on. In this case the abuse does not take the form of simple, naked violence limited to physical form. It comes with not only ideological persuasion on specious grounds, though good enough to hoodwink the gullible, to justify the acts of violence, but also with cultural controls that aim at the total definition of people's daily lives. In such cases there is thus a large portion of the population that supports the actions of the state, either voluntarily or passively.

The Holocaust, perhaps one of the most horrendous experiences in human history, was relatively short lived but nevertheless left behind an indelible trauma in human consciousness. Stalinist terror, together with its gulags, lasted for a longer period, but eventually started changing or softening until it ceased completely with the demise of the regime. The Cultural Revolution, a tragedy on a massive scale inflicted on a large number of people by an equally large number of people, was a peculiar form of abuse of human beings as peculiar as its name, but this too ran out of steam eventually and ceased in a way as mysterious as that in which it had erupted. The Killing Fields, yet another chilling episode in the history of atrocities committed by rulers against their own people, came to an end as well, primarily through external intervention. Conversely, when an egregious abuse of human beings continues in any place for a prolonged period of time, well over half a century, then that case surely requires more serious consideration, not only by those with an immediate interest in it, but by all of us.

On May 12, 1943 Shmel Zygielbojm, a member of the National Council of the Polish Government in exile in London, committed suicide as the Germans were quashing the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. He left a note behind which read in part: "Though the responsibility for the crime of the murder of the entire Jewish nation rests above all upon the perpetrators, indirect blame must be borne by humanity itself." The outside world was mostly indifferent or negligent to what was happening to a large number of people from a single ethnic group in Europe under Nazi occupation. This was partly due to a lack of proper information, and partly to the desperate struggle in which the whole was engaged; however, the message left behind by the desperate man points in the right direction, i.e. to the common responsibility of human kind as a whole in cases of grave abuses of human rights.

International society reacted with greater alacrity in the latter half of the last century to violations of human rights, even inside other countries. For instance, in the sixties many thousands marched in various cities of the world against racial discrimination in the United States, carrying a banner that read, "Your fight is our fight". Martin Luther King called on the people of the world to stand in the other persons' shoes, to see through their eyes, to understand their pain.

Facing realities unfolding before our own eyes at this very moment a hundred times worse than what was happening in America decades ago, is the world going to just sit back and watch? The accounts that have been streaming out of North Korea for some time are serious enough to raise the alarm for human kind as a whole. The country has long been mostly closed to the outside world, its people completely isolated in terms of information itself, let alone contact. Outsiders are barred from making contact with the ordinary people in the country, except for a small number of those selected by the government who act under the strictest control.

Barbara Demick wrote that the strength of the regime comes from its ability to isolate its own citizens completely from the outside world. However, people are isolated not only from the outside world but from one another. In a strict sense there is no real communication between people about their social, let alone political, conditions. One has to be constantly on guard and watch one's tongue, even in conversations with intimate friends or inside the family, lest there be any informer or eavesdropper around. Private meetings, if they take place on a regular basis, immediately become objects of suspicion. This applies to the officials in the higher echelons of the regime, too. In fact, there are no real contacts between people in the country, much less voluntary association. There only remains a huge mass of atomized individuals at the beck and call of the regime and at the convenience of a leader who is officially called the brain, the only one capable of thinking in real terms.

Refugees who have fled the country have testified to the famine and other forms of economic hardship. There are also quite a few defectors, including high level officials, who have left the country for political reasons. These stories can be checked against information provided by official sources. On the whole there is enough information for the outside world to have an idea about the human rights predicament inside the country. Even if we maintain certain reservations about the veracity of the accounts given by some of those who have left, the general standard of human suffering in the country still appears to be really rather serious; comparable to, if not greater than, any other case of abuse known to the world. Again, what makes a difference is that it has lasted for a very long time. One would be wise not to expect any sympathetic villagers such as those whom Gang Hang encountered in the streets of North Korea today. Is there any room for sympathetic people to openly empathize with the victims, for instance when refugees caught fleeing to China are forcibly repatriated to the country?

Some of the facts have been established: the population is categorized into different classes according to their political disposition, as adjudicated by the authorities and without any right of appeal or opportunity to enter their own views. Life and the chance of a successful career are largely determined by this categorization. There is also a system of guilt-by-familial-association, involving concentration camps where a large number of people are incarcerated under inhumane conditions for a very long time, indefinitely and sometimes for good. Militaristic virtues are promoted throughout the society, even aside from those of the official military-first policy which devotes most of the country’s resources to military build-up. The militaristic stance of the regime is matched by the verbal violence in the ubiquitous roadside slogans. Apart from those slogans that appear everywhere in the country, for example "Let’s tear the enemy to pieces" and "Let’s kill our enemies with one blow", even everyday discourse is dominated by militaristic language: "A battle to help farmers", "A campaign to transplant corn", "A one hundred-fifty day campaign followed by a one hundred-day battle to improve the food situation”.... There is a massive system of spying on the population that compels people to report on each other. Even high ranking officials are no exception to this system of spying and reporting.

However, what is no less alarming than the physical repression is the intellectual and affective deprivation, a near perfect system of thought control imposed on the entire population. The country is hermetically sealed from the outside world, an island in the flow of information. People are compelled to think, feel, enjoy and act according to official guidelines. Even shows of passivity are not permissible. One has to actively conform to the guidelines. As one refugee recalls, there is no freedom, even the freedom not to weep when expected to. A Korean expatriate living in Europe, a pro-North Korea Marxist, has been in distress of late, hard put to account for the supernatural phenomena often quoted in the official propaganda to idolize and even deify the leadership. He is struggling to come to terms with how a Marxist regime could indulge in practices going against the rationalist tradition of socialism and engage in activities numbing to the critical faculty of human beings. It is a different story, however, for people residing inside the country; they are exposed without defence, without any alternative source to turn to, facing a constant barrage of persuasion over a long period of time.

When totalitarian control of a society continues for a long time and when there are no alternatives open to the people except to adapt to the external coercion, the result is a kind of Stockholm syndrome on a national scale. People internalize the repressive system to improve their chances of survival, to facilitate accommodating what is inevitable. People not only go along with the system, they even really believe what they have to, what they are taught to - at least for the time being.

It is known that people are discouraged from being distinctive under the circumstances of great exigencies. There is one indelible episode in the memoirs of a close relative of the deceased great leader, his sister-in-law who defected to Europe. The great leader was looking for a suitable candidate to become the bridegroom to his niece, and ultimately came up with four candidates, all of whom had promising careers ahead of them. However, the bride-to-be was not impressed by any of them, the reason being that they all looked alike and had no character of their own. To this the great leader himself agreed with a wry smile.

When a regime of extreme abuse of human rights lasts for a very long time, over two generations, the effect can be pervasive. There are many gruesome stories about life in the concentration camps from both ex-inmates and even ex- guards that remind one of an old adage; that this kind of experience has the same effect on prisoner and prison guard, persecuted and persecutor, victim and perpetrator. Both ultimately suffer a common fate; depravity of humanity. Also, when you read about the life of ordinary citizens, a prison appears sometimes like the entire society carried to grotesque extremes.

The effect does not stop at the immediate scene of the suffering. Even those high up who plan and carry out policy are victims of a system of their own making. They have to shut their eyes and ears and hearts to the muted cries of anguish emanating from the population and persuade themselves just as much as the people they govern that they are doing the right thing. When we look at things from this perspective, even the one at the very top is not an exception. According to the memoirs of an actress who was kidnapped and taken to North Korea, the great leader whispered in her ears while he was receiving fervent laudation from the crowd gathered below the podium: "These are all lies. They are just pretending."

Even the present leader is said to have once confided to a close associate, a Japanese chef, that he was concerned whether the ordinary people would enjoy the kind of luxuries they had before he became heir apparent. He has now to suppress this concern, relegate it to a dark corner of his consciousness and divert the nation’s resources from feeding the people to military hardware or ceremonial festivities. At least three world leaders; Presidents Barack Obama, Hu Jintao and Dmitry Medvedev, let alone Lee Myung-bak, commented on this to the same effect. But does the young leader of North Korea need to be reminded?  
Gandhi once remarked that starvation is the worst form of violence. Recently, Amartya Sen opined that famine does not occur in democracies as the government will lose power in the next election if it allows that kind of things to happen. The two quotations should be kept in mind by anybody who thinks that the most we can do about human rights in North Korea is to keep supplying it with food assistance.  
It has been observed for sometime by scholars working in this field that noticeable differences in physique have emerged between the people in the two parts of Korea. Northerners have grown to be considerably shorter than southerners, and their body shapes have also diverged. The differences may not stop at physical traits alone.

The erosion of empathy does not stop at the national boundary of the country in question. Shadow creeps into our hearts outside of the country, into all of us who would turn our faces away from the misery of people persecuted by state power. Yet it is considerations of high politics or issues of political importance that receive most of the attention. There have even been comedies performed on North Korean themes, caricaturing the abnormal practices in the country. For whom? Is it to the merriment of the audience?

It is generally acknowledged that with the progress of civilization, people begin to empathize more with the suffering of others, to look askance at violence and repression inflicted even on animals, let alone human beings, torture, slavery and extreme forms of violence. There do, however, seem to be exceptions to this general trend in the modern world.

During ten years of what is known as the Sunshine Policy, problems of human suffering were only at the margins of transactions between the two sides of Korea. The important issues were of a political nature: reconciliation, peace, national unity and the hidden agenda of both sides, i.e. an all-important national agenda of ultimate unification. On this each had its own designs, i.e. disintegration of the other side and unification on its own terms.

Outside the Korean Peninsula the situation has remained the same. The major concerns of the powers remain matters of high politics: for some it is the weapons of mass destruction that North Korea is developing; for the others it is their strategic interest in the stability of the peninsula and survival of the regime.

It is not to say that issues of high politics are not important. As the pending issues of the day they sometimes deserve priority over human problems which require longer term attention. However, as one important work on this issue points out, what matters is again our empathy for the suffering people, our concerns about human chaos resulting from a long term anomalous state, and most of all our willingness to express concern even while attending to matters of greater immediate importance and even at the risk of creating awkwardness.

A short but seminal work on the human rights problem in North Korea was done recently by two Korean scholars, one each representing the conservative and progressive camps that tend to be at war with one another on this issue. Their conclusion was that while political issues of the day deserve to receive priority attention, it is most important to keep our interest in human rights alive and to persist in raising our concerns, aimed at incremental gains, even minor ones, little by little.

It appears also to me that keeping this issue in mind and being ready to raise it will keep the shadow of darkness from creeping into our hearts whenever we turn our faces away from a crisis in humanity.

There is talk about the grave dangers to humanity posed by such things as climate change, population growth, water shortages, rising food prices and failing states... But shouldn't we also think of the darkness of heart created by an atavistic state power aiming at the total control of human beings growing in ever wider circles through our negligence, leading slowly to the unraveling of humanity?

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