Korean people have a tradition of commemorating a special date by referring to it by its numerical digits. (We occasionally do the same thing, for example, “9/11”) We recently celebrated what the South Koreans call “sa il ku,” which translates to April 19 and memorializes a dramatic event that took place in 1960. On that early spring day tens of thousands of South Korean people, led by student demonstrators took to the streets of Seoul to protest increasing authoritarianism by the Syngman Rhee government.
Rhee had been an expatriate during the Japanese occupation and returned to Korea immediately after WWII to form an interim government. The Cold War divisions reflected by the separation at the birth of independence of the two Koreas. With American assistance an election was held in the South and Rhee became the first president of the Republic of Korea (South Korea). He presided over the terrible Korean War and the turbulent post-war period that saw South Korea wallow in economic depression and stagnation. For all of his outward aspirations for democracy Rhee was tendentious and authoritarian. He was a staunch anti-communist, sincere, and incorruptible. But the popular perception was that he stifled political freedom. It cost him his presidency.
The April 19 commemoration marks the initiation of the real democratic movement in South Korea. It was a long, difficult process: not until October 1987 did free and open elections resume. They have continued to this day. For impatient Americans it is well to note that other countries’ democratization – as was our own – is a long, often painful transformation. Nevertheless, despite constant terrorist attacks from North Korea, an economic development explosion that has been described as a miracle, a succession of military coups, and a turbulent period marked by assassination, street riots, and political fighting, South Korea today is a role model for developing countries. Despite some warts, South Korea is a long way from military coup days, and its citizens are committed to settle differences at the ballot box.
This brings up the sharply contrasting following date of April 20, also a significant date in history. On this date 116 years ago Adolf Hitler was born. Hitler’s ascendancy to power and egregious violations of all civilized standards set the tone for the rest of what historians call the century of violence. He was not the first mass murderer to appear in the world but was the first to exploit industrialization and modern management techniques to eliminate more than 11 million innocent people. Why, you may wonder, is this relevant to a discussion about Korea?
It applies when we juxtapose the two countries. What we see in South Korea – a steady development of a free market, participatory democracy – stands in stark contrast to the nightmare state that exists north of the Demilitarized Zone. North Korea, under the oppressive leadership of first Kim Il Sung and then his son Kim Jong Il, more closely resembles a Hitlerian state than any other on the planet. What justification is there for this admittedly strong statement?
Just as Hitler (and to be fair, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others) abused his people, and exploited them to promote his own delusions of grandeur, so have the Kims done to the people of North Korea. The ideology each holds – National Socialism for the former, Communism for the latter – are remarkably similar in the implementation though they profess otherwise. Kim Jong-il behaves most brutally, a technique be learned from modern totalitarian rulers. His regime beggars description in its pervasive oppression and horror.
A frightening example of learned similarity: Early in the Nazi days installations were established in which experiments were conducted on human beings. These included but were not limited to experiments involving methods of mass killing: poison gasses, biological toxins, and mechanical methods of execution were all taught, practiced, and analyzed. One such place was Hartheim, an old castle near Linz, Austria. There scientists, doctors, and military and para-military types such as the SS, were indoctrinated and trained in methods of mass murder. The objective was to de-sensitize them to the horrors that they were committing and would perpetrate on a larger scale when they were deployed. Those that passed training later became heads of extermination camps or of traveling special death brigades that executed hundreds of thousands of Jews, Poles, Gypsies, and other minorities in foreign lands.
Most tellingly, the initial experimentation in Hartheim and similar camps was performed upon German and Austrian people. The Nazis killed their own people first. They began with the helpless. First to be eliminated were the infirm, invalids, aged, mentally ill, deformed, and other “misfits” and “sub-humans.” This entire process was excused by defining such people as having “lives not worth living.” After the end of WWII the shocked world was committed to a policy of “never again.”
But today we are aware that Kim Jong-il is conducting poison gas experiments on North Korean prisoners that is a chilling reminder of the early days of Nazism. He is performing as Rabbi Avraham Cooper, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center describes it, “genocide upon his own people.” Such actions are unacceptable. We have survived the bloody century and embarked upon a new millennium. Yet we ignore the facts or excuse them while hundreds of thousands of people suffer in death camps, starve to death, or live lives under brutal oppression.
This week is North Korean Freedom Week. The suffering of the people of North Korea will be commemorated in places around the country and around the world, but the governments that could affect change continue to ignore or disregard North Korean suffering, or prefer to place it lower in the queue in priority of policy imperatives. When democratic governments refuse to act in a moral, responsible manner it is time that the good people of those governments instruct them to do so.
The selection and comparison of two seemingly random dates in history reminds us once again of the awful consequences of inaction. We must take positive action to remove the oppressive dictator from North Korea. It is time to mobilize and insist that our leaders in Congress and in the Executive demand regime change as the only acceptable policy for North Korea. The people of North Korea must be free.