Making Fun of Kim Jong Un Is Distracting Us from Human-Rights Abuses

"Labor" camps imprisoning up to 200,000 innocent North Koreans are routinely ignored by American diplomats—and the general public

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KCNA / AFP / Getty Images

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waving to officials and employees of the Mansudae Art Studio at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang in a photograph released on April 20, 2012.

Meet the newest reason to laugh about North Korea: @KimJongNumberUn

The real Kim Jong Un is a chubby-cheeked 20-something dictator. His grandfather was the Great Leader who created the North Korean state. His father was the Dear Leader, dead of a heart attack in December. Now the Young General, as he is called in Pyongyang, has become an object of ribald mockery in the Twittersphere. “Baby you’re so fine I want to put my rocket in your silo,” @KimJongNumberUn tweeted before a recent unsuccessful missile launch.

(PHOTOS: North Korea’s Missile Launch Fails)

Yukking it up about North Korea has become an American and European pastime. Until his death, Kim Jong Il’s silly jumpsuits, puffy hair and big glasses were an easy laugh on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. Similarly, editors and reporters at the Economist made fun of the “extraterrestrial freaks” who rule North Korea. That magazine conceded in April that mockery had numbed its moral outrage. “It is easier to lampoon the regime,” an editorial said, “than to grapple with the suffering it inflicts.”

The scale of that suffering is increasingly less amusing. A second edition of Hidden Gulag, a report by David Hawk of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, stitches together ghastly eyewitness accounts from 60 North Koreans sent to camps for wrongdoing, wrong thinking or having the wrong relatives. Their stories are linked to annotated satellite images showing a string of sprawling labor camps that contain 150,000 to 200,000 prisoners.

My new book, Escape from Camp 14, focuses on the only known person to have been born and raised in one of the camps — and to find his way to the West. Shin Dong-hyuk’s descent into hell began before his conception in Camp 14, when guards ordered his parents to breed and produce in-house slave labor. Raised by guards, Shin snitched on his mother and brother for discussing escape. He was forced to watch their execution. Now a free man, he struggles to comprehend the concept of trust. He has chronic nightmares about the day his mother was hanged.

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The horrors of camps, though, are not discussed when American diplomats meet with their North Korean counterparts. They focus on nuclear weapons and food aid. One longtime U.S. diplomat who attended scores of these meetings said that if the camps were mentioned, North Koreans simply walked out of the room. To keep them talking, Washington has mostly kept mum on human rights. Meanwhile, negotiations to stop nuclear and missile proliferation have lurched from failure to failure.

@KimJongNumberUn boasted recently about how much fun he is to follow: “Since January, I have over 100,000 followers, not counting the 24 million who have no choice. #LOL.” The inmates of Camp 14, according to Shin Dong-hyuk, are beaten if they laugh out.

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