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     May 26, 2005
Something for Pyongyang to chew on
By Andrei Lankov

SEOUL - A survivor of the North Korean prison camps concludes a story of his suffering at the hands of Kim Il-sung's henchmen by saying, "I think I will live to see how those bastards will go to prison, to pay for all what they have done to us." It is easy to understand that this man, in his late 30s, with such an experience of torture, betrayal, lies and destitution, would expect revenge. After all, Adolf Hitler's executioners (well, most of them) went to prison, and some even to the gallows. Thus, it is only rational to expect that the same fate would befall the people who run one of the bloodiest "minor" dictatorships in the world.

But let's face it: such a triumph of justice is unlikely to happen. Furthermore, it probably should not be allowed to happen: the only way to prevent further suffering in North Korea might be by granting the country's elite complete immunity from persecution for all crimes committed during their rule.

A woeful state
No complete statistics are available yet, but a few figures (some are more reliable than others) have already emerged from North Korea, and this data leave few doubts that we are talking about a truly murderous system. Currently, 150,000-200,000 people are in political prison camps. We might assume that the average number for the past 50 years has been 100,000, and consider that the average time spent in prison is about 10 years, after which a prisoner can be either dead or released. Thus, we will arrive at some half million people who have been imprisoned for real or imagined political crimes under the rule of Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il-sung - out of a population of about 24 million.

These are estimates, but they seem to agree with the scarce information available from defectors, and those figures are conservative.

But the actual number of victims is higher than the number of prison inmates. A large number of people are not sent to prison, they are exiled to remote areas, and their families are deprived of the right to pursue a normal life. Often such banishment leads to the death of the family, as during the "great famine" of the 1990s.

Repression on such a massive scale cannot be even remotely compared with the political persecution in post-Stalinist East European countries, where the number of victims was counted merely in the thousands, and where their chances of survival were much higher. The much-vilified Stasi, the East German security police, appeared to be harsh only if compared to the standards of affluent and democratic Europe. What could happen to an individual in East Germany if he got himself in trouble with the authorities? Such a person was likely to lose promotion or the opportunity to travel overseas. However, in North Korea, a similar report normally leads to the victim's execution or a slow death in a prison camp. More often than not, the victim's family will go to prison as well.

And we are talking only about victims of judicial persecution. The North Korean government can also be blamed for the famine of 1996-1999, which probably took between 600,000 and 900,000 lives (once again, conservative estimates). Those people died because economic reforms, which could have saved most or all of them, were deemed politically dangerous by the elite. One can also blame the regime for starting the Korean War, which resulted in the deaths of millions.

But even if we cling to 500,000 as the minimum number of people who were directly killed or imprisoned for their real or alleged political wrongdoing, it is a very large number for a country of such a size.

So, the number of victims is great, but what about the perpetrators? It is equally large. The North Korean political police, known as the Ministry for Protection of the State Security (MPSS), run an extensive network of informers. Defected officers of the MPSS say that under normal circumstances they are supposed to have one informer per every 50 persons, while in more "politically difficult" environments the density is increased.

Yi Su-ryon, the daughter and wife of ethnic Koreans from Japan, told about a typical incident. During a drinking party, four out of its seven participants (including Yi's husband) admitted to being informers.

These figures mean that roughly half a million people are or have been government spies. And police cadres and government officials of all levels are required to approve arrests, as was the case in Joseph Stalin's Russia or Mao Zedong's China.

Then there are the people who were involved in manifold acts of terror and subversion against South Korea - and we can be sure they all know the stories of assassination plots and commando raids are only the tip of the iceberg. There are the officers who kidnap people from South Korea and other countries, officials who run drug smuggling and counterfeit currency rings, and of course prison guards: the average ratio for Stalin's gulags is well known - one guard for every 10 prisoners. This means some 50,000 ex-guards - and this is a conservative estimate, once again.

In short, a few hundred thousand people have been directly involved in the criminal activities of the regime. With such large numbers of victims and perpetrators, no serious investigation is likely to be possible.

A choice between two evils
There is an apocryphal story about Nikita Khrushchev, the man behind the de-Stalinization campaign in the USSR. He was allegedly asked why so few people were brought to trial for crimes committed in Stalin's era (merely a few hundred of the most notorious people stood in secret trials). He reportedly answered, "Well, I suppose we must empty the prison camps, not replace old inmates with new ones."

True or not, the story captures the essence of the dilemma: in a truly murderous dictatorship, more or less every member of the elite is somehow involved with what might be best described as "criminal policy". Thus, persecuting everybody might mean putting into prison the majority of educated people with administrative experience.

Nonetheless, even if complete and thorough persecution is impractical, some key figures of the regime are very likely to go to prison. And they understand this. The fear of persecution is certainly one of the factors that makes Kim Jong-il and his entourage so stubborn and, as a result, so murderous.

The North Korean leaders must be aware that their system does not work too well - at least, this is what many documents smuggled from Pyongyang's inner circles seem to confirm. But these people have no decent exit option for themselves, and this is a disaster, not so much for them, but for their subjects. They have good reasons to be afraid of persecution and revenge, and thus they are determined to resist until the end.

As someone who witnessed the collapse of the Soviet system from the inside, this writer can testify that popular discontent (quite real in the 1970s and 1980s) was only one of many factors which led to its breakdown. The final blow to the communist system was dealt when members of the elite decided that it would make perfect sense to jettison their formal allegiance to communist beliefs (few of them sincerely shared these beliefs by the 1980s anyway), and re-package themselves as supporters of the market economy and democracy. Politically, this was a wise decision: in nearly all post-Soviet countries, the elite nowadays overwhelmingly consists of former communist bureaucrats who, 15 years ago, after a lifelong career in the Communist Party, suddenly proclaimed themselves staunch enemies of communism.

In North Korea, such a peaceful, if cynical, solution appears impossible - it is prevented by the seemingly intractable problem in the form of South Korea. The very existence of this affluent (from the North Korean point of view - not simply "affluent" but unbelievingly rich) and free country creates manifold problems for Pyongyang's leaders. If common North Koreans learned of South Korean prosperity and if they became less fearful of political persecution, nothing would stop them from behaving like East Germans did in 1990. Why on earth would they agree to live in a crumbling and destitute state if they knew that there was a prosperous and free "other Korea" just across the border?

And what will happen to the top crust of the North Korean government, and the few hundred neo-aristocratic families who surround Kim Jong-il? They are afraid that a gloomy future awaits them, and they are probably correct. Any post-unification transformation is certain to be painful. The new post-unification government will need scapegoats, and the former North Korean leaders will be first in the firing line - perhaps both figuratively and literally.

Thus, the North Korean elite is cornered. These people do not want to tamper with the system since they are afraid it will collapse as a result of some experiments. In such a case, they have nothing to gain and everything to lose - not only their prosperity, privilege and power, but also their freedom - and in some cases even their lives. This means they have to continue with their policy, believing that their choice is "kill or be killed".

The carrot of amnesty
How to break this deadlock? The short answer is an amnesty. People who run the country should be granted immunity from persecution for all crimes.

Such an amnesty might not exclude what is known as "lustrations" in Eastern Europe, where former party, police and security bureaucrats were not eligible for certain positions in the government and could not run businesses of certain types. Such people above a certain level under Kim might (and perhaps should) be excluded from keeping official positions in the post-unification era. But criminal persecution is not an option, both because it is not practical, and also because the fear of such persecution contributes toward the ongoing tragedy of the North Korean people.

Nobody can restore to life the people who have perished in the torture chambers and concentration camps of the regime. But we are talking now about the living and of preventing more deaths. Countless people would be alive or have better lives had North Korea's leaders been less persistent in their stubborn (and understandable) rejection of reform, and had they been given a way out.

Certainly, the North Korean leaders might be cautious of buying into any talk of amnesty. They will have seen what happened to the former South Korean generals-turned-presidents who once were promised immunity in exchange for their willingness to surrender power in a peaceful manner. The new democratic South Korean government tried to keep its promises for a while, but in 1995, facing mounting pressures from the political left, former presidents Roh Tae-woo and Chun Doo-hwan faced prosecution.

Hence, to make such a promise believable, it should be very public, unequivocal and all-inclusive, leaving as few loopholes for future revenge-seekers as possible. Further, international involvement and overseas asylum for the top leaders might be a good idea.

There is a precedent for this, from Idi Amin of Uganda, Mobutu Sese Seko of then-Zaire to Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. The latter, the hereditary dictator of Haiti, if anything, was much more of a bizarre personality than Kim, but this did not prevent him from being warmly accepted by France after his downfall.

Talk of an amnesty for North Korea's elite will have its opponents, but it is a compromise solution that might help save lives and hasten the end of the regime: if the rulers in Pyongyang know that in spite of being on the losing side they will not face persecution, let alone die in jail, but will spend the rest of their days in relative safety and comfort, they might be more willing to throw in the towel. And if lower-level officials know that they will at least keep their personal freedom after unification, they will be far less ready to fight and kill.

Dr Andrei Lankov is a lecturer in the faculty of Asian Studies, China and Korea Center, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea, and his thesis focused on factionalism in the Yi Dynasty. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia. He is currently on leave, teaching at Kookmin University, Seoul.

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The price of Asian conflict (May 24, '05)

Pyongyang reveals its hand (May 21, '05)

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