By Vaclav Havel, Globe and Mail, December 17, 2011
(Poet and playwright Vaclav Havel is a former president of the Czech Republic.)
It is exactly 60 years since Rudolf Vrba's and Alfred Wetzler's successful escape from Auschwitz, an escape that brought to light accounts of Hitler's extermination camps.
The testimony given by Messrs. Vrba and Wetzler forced representatives of the democratic world to face facts that many did not want to believe, even after the end of the war. Thanks to them and countless numbers of other witnesses, the horrors and extent of the Nazi final solution are universally known.
Like the Nazi Holocaust, the crimes and brutal reality of Soviet communism were also outlined and understood, thanks to the writings of Arthur Koestler, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and others.
Fortunately, people who use direct eyewitness testimony in attempts to expose the greatest crimes against humanity can be found in each era and all over the world. Rithy Panh described the terror of the Khmer Rouge, Kanan Makiya detailed the brutal prisons of Saddam Hussein and Harry Wu has tried to show the perversion of the Laogai system of Chinese forced labour camps.
Today, the testimony of thousands of North Korean refugees, who have survived the miserable journey through Communist China to free South Korea, tell of the criminal nature of the North Korean dictatorship. Accounts of repression are supported and verified by modern satellite images, and clearly illustrate that North Korea has a functioning system of concentration camps. The Kwan-li-so, or the political penal-labour colony, holds as many as 200,000 prisoners who are barely surviving day-to-day or are dying in the same conditions as did the millions of prisoners in the Soviet gulag system in the past.
The Northern part of the Korean peninsula is governed by the world's worst totalitarian dictator, who is responsible for taking millions of human lives. Kim Jong-il inherited the extensive Communist regime following the death of his father Kim Il-sung, and has shamelessly continued to strengthen the cult of personality.
He sustains one of the largest armies in the world and is producing weapons of mass destruction. The centrally planned economy and the state ideology of juche have led the country into famine. The victims of the North Korean regime number in the millions.
Despite the ever-present army and police, tens of thousands of desperate North Koreans have escaped to China. In defiance of international treaties, the Chinese government does not recognize the status of these people as refugees, and Chinese officials have prevented the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from having access to any North Korean in China.
The Chinese government hunts the refugees in the woods along the border and deports them back to North Korea, where the journey ends in the Kwan-li-so. All of this is happening right now, and the world is standing idly by.
Some refugees are fortunate enough to make it successfully to South Korea. But their existence in South Korea flies in the face of that country's official Sunshine Policy, which however well-intentioned, is based on constant concessions and appeasement. The policy costs South Korea hundreds of millions of dollars, but it is not helping to reach a solution to the overall problem or saving innocent human lives. In the end, the policy only keeps the leader of Pyongyang in power.
Kim Jong-il is able to blackmail the entire world with the help of his million-man army, nuclear weapons, long-range rockets and the export of weaponry and military technology to like-minded dictators around the world.
Kim Jong-il wants to be respected and feared abroad, and he wants to be recognized as one of the most powerful leaders in today's world. He is willing to let his own people die of hunger, and uses famine to liquidate any sign of wavering loyalty to his rule.
Through blackmail, Kim Jong-il receives food and oil, which he distributes among those loyal to him (first in line being the army), while the international community has no way to ascertain who is receiving aid inside North Korea.
This year, at the UN Commission for Human Rights in Geneva, a resolution was passed condemning the practices of the North Korean government. Even with this condemnation, it is difficult to believe the commission has criticized the North Korean regime for gross violations of human rights on only two occasions since the commission was founded.
Less shocking, but equally disturbing, is the fact that the North Korean government has yet to fulfill any of the concrete recommendations included in the resolution from the previous year.
Innocent North Koreans are dying of hunger or are closed in concentration camps, as Kim Jong-il continues to blackmail the world.
Now is the time for the democratic countries of the world - the European Union, the United States, Japan and, last but not least, South Korea - to unify under a common position. These countries must make it perfectly clear that they will not make concessions to a totalitarian dictator.
They must state that respect for basic human rights is an integral part of any future discussions with Pyongyang. Decisiveness, perseverance and negotiations from a position of strength are the only things that Kim Jong-il and those similar to him understand.
Let's hope that the world does not need any more horrifying testimony to realize this.