The obits for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il are filled with details about his weird personal habits and his country's nukes, but the history books will reveal him as one of the great mass murderers of our times.
One of my most chilling journalistic experiences came in 2004 in South Korea, when I was interviewing a handful of North Koreans who had managed to escape to Seoul, and listening to the horrors they'd endured in their home country. Only a few thousand North Koreans have made it out, and they bear witness to the terrible suffering that Kim and his father, Kim Il Sung, inflicted on the North Korean population. Their crimes are on a par with the autogenocide conducted by Cambodia's Khmer Rouge.
Much of the world knows that more than one million North Koreans perished of starvation in the last decade because of the regime's bizarre economic policies. But, because the North Korean regime seals its own people off from the outside world and permits only a few carefully controlled visitors in, Americans are less aware of North Korea's death camps. They still reputedly hold 200,000 political prisoners, including many Christians.
The "lucky" prisoners are sentenced to reeducation, which means they may be released someday if they survive years of hard labor and torture. But many political prisoners are sentenced to life at hard labor. Their whole families are deported to the camps, including children and grandparents. Food rations are minimal, and death by starvation is common.
On my trip to Seoul, I met one North Korean woman whose entire family was suddenly rounded up because her military officer brother had said something that was interpreted as critical of the regime. She survived by jumping off the train that was taking the family to the camp and making it across the river that divides North Korea from China.
But China will send refugees back if it catches them, which means imprisonment or death. Female escapees are often sexually abused inside China. And those North Koreans who make it to Beijing still face immense hurdles in reaching South Korea; relatively few eventually make it to Seoul.
On that trip to Seoul, I attended a church service where North Korean refugees gathered, even those who were not Christian. Church emissaries often travel to the North Korean border with China to help the refugees, and churches provide one of the few welcoming places where North Koreans can meet. But in talking to these exiles, I felt I was conversing with dead people walking, with men and women who had endured so much they were barely alive.
Having lived entirely regimented lives, North Koreans are often unable to fit into South Korean life. They are haunted by the certainty that their entire families back home will be punished for their escape to freedom. And, until recently, the South Korean government - fearing a huge flood of refugees - was less than welcoming to those who made it out.
What's so galling about this mass murder is that there are no levers to stop it. The only country with real influence on Pyongyang is China, which is indifferent to human rights crimes. And the world is more concerned with preventing North Korea from selling its nuclear material to terrorists or rogue regimes than it is with closing death camps. Of course, the regime baldly denies the camps exist, despite the testimony of escapees and the evidence of satellite photos.