'PARADISE ON EARTH'
Living under a totalitarian regime requires a daily suspension of disbelief. Nowhere is that more true today than in North Korea, where otherwise ethical people contort themselves into untenable moral positions because they've bought into the oft-repeated notion that their country is "Paradise on Earth." Simply to survive in North Korea, citizens must believe they are living in a chosen land. And when ideological indoctrination morphs into reality, the dictator need not even be nearby to spread fear. Not if average people will do his bidding for him.
All of which is bad news for those who don't fit into Kim Jong Il's ideal of a healthy, vital citizenry. In the people's paradise that is North Korea, disabled -- even short -- people are considered subhuman. In 1989, Pyongyang hosted the World Festival of Youth and Students. In preparing for the international gathering, the entire nation was encouraged to outdo South Korea's hosting of the Summer Olympic Games the year before. Pyongyang's event had to be bigger and more glamorous. One such method was to purify the revolutionary capital of Pyongyang of disabled people.
Six months before the festival, the government rounded up all disabled residents of Pyongyang and sent them away from the capital to remote villages. The majority were clockmakers, seal engravers, locksmiths, and cobblers who made their living in the city. Overnight, they were forcibly deprived of the lives they had known.
I saw this policy of "purification" up close. I have an old friend who, upon graduation from the Pyongyang University of Medicine, built a career in the state Academy of Medical Science. We were classmates at Heungnam High School and fought together in the Korean War. We were like brothers. One day during May 1989, he visited me at home looking deeply upset.
"What's troubling you? You look very distressed," I said to my friend.
"Well, I'm OK, I guess... but I've done a terrible thing. An abhorrent thing."
"What do you mean? You aren't a bad person."
His eyes welled with tears.
"I have made cripples out of normal, healthy people and sent them away for good," he said. "It is inhumane, what I have done. I shall never be able to hold my head up again."
My friend, a well-connected physician at the time, told me that he had been ordered by the Communist Party to pick out the shortest residents of Pyongyang and South Pyongan province. Against his conscience, he went out to those areas and had local party representatives distribute propaganda pamphlets. They claimed that the state had developed a drug that could raise a person's height and was recruiting people to receive the new treatment. In just two days, thousands gathered to take the new drug.
My friend explained how he picked out the shortest among the large group. He told the crowd that the drug would best take effect when consumed regularly in an environment with clean air. The people willingly, and without the slightest suspicion, hopped aboard two ships -- women in one, men in the other. Separately, they were sent away to different uninhabited islands in an attempt to end their "substandard" genes from repeating in a new generation. Left for dead, none of the people made it back home. They were forced to spend the rest of their lives separated from their families and far from civilization.
"I can hardly believe that I've done such a terrible thing," he told me.
My friend, who still lives in North Korea, will spend the rest of his days tormented with guilt. At the same time, he did not forget to beg me over and over that this incident was a state secret and that I was not to tell a soul, not even my wife. I kept his secret for some 16 years. There seems little point now in protecting a party, a government, and a leader that failed to do the same for its people.
WITNESS TO HISTORY
In late June, the United States took the dramatic and highly symbolic step of removing North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. As one component of the ongoing six-party talks to encourage North Korea to give up its nuclear program, the trade-off doesn't seem so bad. But a lack of hard evidence doesn't mean something isn't true. Although the current chatter revolves around Kim Jong Il's possible ties to a nascent Syrian nuclear program, one episode from 25 years ago reminds me of the very real dangers the North Korean regime poses to international stability.
A bright former student of mine had risen to become a high-ranking official in the Central Party's Department of Propaganda and Agitation. One day in October 1983, he invited me and two other professors to his home for dinner. He lived in a luxury apartment complex for officials of the Central Party with the rank of director or above, where he shared a unit with his son, himself a special reporter for the official North Korean news agency.
All of a sudden, as we were in the middle of dinner, our host's son ran into the room out of breath.
"Dad, we have a serious problem," he said. "Have you heard the news?"
Our hearts skipped a beat. What could possibly have transpired to put an experienced news reporter in such an agitated state?
"This just came in over the wire. They botched the job. It's a serious situation. The bald goon survived and his underlings died instead. Our news report is now worthless, and they sent all of us home."
Our host excused himself suddenly and rushed back to his office. The three of us left the apartment puzzled and concerned.