Perhaps it would be better if we simply vowed to never again say "never again" when it comes to the sort of slaughter and institutionalized cruelty we associate with the Holocaust. Then again, taking the sting out of hypocrisy wouldn't do much for the people of North Korea.
For decades now, we've known that what's going on in North Korea is too terrible to contemplate. Even so, what once haunted us as an ill-defined and foreboding suspicion has clarified into the secure knowledge of broad and systemic evil.
A new report by the Korean Bar Assn. offers a horrifying portrait of the Hermit Kingdom's mountaintop dungeons, which, notes the Washington Post's Blaine Harden, have lasted about 10 times as long as the Nazi concentration camps and about as long as the Soviet gulag. The North Korean abattoir even survived the largely man-made famine of the 1990s, in which hundreds of thousands of people are believed to have starved to death. In the camps, prison guards are instructed that it is better to err on the side of rape and murder than on the side of mercy or kindness.
Because North Korea's founding dictator, Kim Il Sung, declared, "Enemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations," even the grandchildren of "traitors" a term of infinite flexibility and application can be sentenced to a life of hard labor as slaves and slow death from exhaustion and malnutrition.
Samantha Power, an Obama administration National Security Council official, wrote a moving book about America's inability or unwillingness to stop genocidal slaughter. In "A Problem From Hell," Power surveyed the cumulative horrors of the 1990s in Bosnia and Rwanda and was forced to ask, "Did 'never again' simply mean 'never again will Germans kill Jews in Europe between 1939 and 1945?' "
If the answer to Power's sardonic question is yes, then America and the West have every reason to be proud of their record. If we mean that when faced in our own time with the reality of such organized evil we will heed the "never again" lesson, than we have a lot to be ashamed of.
In his recent visit to Buchenwald, the Nazi death camp, President Obama insisted that we must "bear witness" to the evil of the Holocaust. Such platitudes are the stuff of every president and potentate who visits such places. And that's fine. It is, after all, what we are supposed to say. But we are also supposed to mean it. After all, it is easy to say we must bear witness to things that have already happened and to promise to "never forget" the sins of others and our own good deeds.
But what of things figuratively happening under our noses and literally transpiring a click away on our computer screens? You can see the slave camps in North Korea not quite live via satellite, but close enough where the machinery of suffering chugs along 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Ask yourself: What if Buchenwald were a mouse click away?
Our collective, bipartisan failure to deal with the human suffering in North Korea is chalked up to the fact that Kim Jong Il's nuclear program is a far more pressing concern than is the brutalization and murder of North Korean citizens.
That is hardly a trivial argument. But it is looking less compelling every day. Republican and Democratic presidents alike have failed to disarm North Korea because it does not wish to be disarmed; it is a true extortion regime. Its existence is owed entirely to the fact that it has mastered geopolitical blackmail. In exchange for promises to do things it will never do, we give it aid along with as many second chances as it can carry.
Meanwhile, North Korean nuclear brinkmanship and ballistic saber-rattling guarantee that outside governments will not exert an ounce of effort on the ongoing humanitarian crisis. "Talking to them about the camps is something that has not been possible," David Straub, a senior State Department official under presidents George W. Bush and Clinton, told the Post. "They go nuts when you talk about it." And so, we pretend it's just not happening.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday compared North Korea to "small children and unruly teenagers ... demanding attention." She says we shouldn't give them the attention "they don't deserve it, they are acting out."
Seen through the window of nuclear diplomacy, Clinton's neo-Bushian stance is entirely defensible. Seen through a moral prism, it's at worse a horror and at best a profound failure to bear witness.
There are no easy or risk-free solutions. But maybe a good place to start would be for the U.S. government to act as if "never again" meant something when it matters.