In recent years, we have all grown accustomed to speaking with deep incomprehension of the indifference that the world displayed during the years of the Nazi Holocaust. A series of books has accused a plethora of respectable institutions – the Vatican, the US government, the international Jewish community, the Allied commanders – of “allowing” the Holocaust to occur, through ignorance, ill will or fear, or simply because there were other priorities.
We read these books and shake our heads self-righteously, certain that if we had been there, it would never have happened – all the while failing to see that the present is no different. Quite a lot has changed in 60 years, but the ways in which information about crimes against humanity can simultaneously be “known” and not known hasn’t changed at all. To see what I mean, look no farther than the international reaction to Olenka Frenkiel’s documentary, recently aired on the BBC, and written about by her in this newspaper, describing the testing of chemical weapons in the concentration camps of North Korea. Central to the film was the testimony of Kwon Hyuk, a former camp administrator. “I witnessed a whole family being tested on suffocating gas and dying in the gas chamber,” he said.
“The parents, son and a daughter. The parents were vomiting and dying, but till the very last moment they tried to save the kids by doing mouth-to-mouth breathing.” Documents were produced too, as well as testimony from former prisoners, including one who said she saw 50 women die after being fed poison.
But the documentary was journalism. Do we really know that it is true? We don’t. It was based on witness testimony, which is notoriously unreliable. All kinds of people might have had an interest in making the film more sensational, including journalists (good for their careers) or North Korean defectors (good for their cause).
The veracity of the information has been further undermined by the absence of official confirmation. The South Korean government, which believes that appeasement of the North will lead to reunification, has already voiced skepticism about the claims: “We will need to investigate,” their spokesman said. American and European governments, preoccupied with important nuclear negotiations on the Korean peninsula, have other priorities.
In the days since the documentary aired, few other news organisations have picked up the story either. There are other priorities for them too: John Kerry’s mistress, Michael Howard’s first 100 days, elections in Iraq. With the possible exception of the first, these are all genuinely important subjects. North Korea, by contrast, is far away and, quite frankly, it doesn’t seem there is a lot we can do about it.
Later – in 10 years, or in 60 – it will surely turn out that quite a lot was known in 2004 about the camps of North Korea. It will turn out that information collected by various human rights groups, South Korean churches, oddball documentary makers and spies added up to a damning and largely accurate picture of an evil regime. It will also turn out that there were things that could have been done, approaches the South Korean government might have made, diplomatic channels the US government might have opened, pressure the Chinese might have applied.
Historians in Asia, Europe and America will finger their establishment institutions, just as we point to those of the 1940s, and demand they justify their past actions. And no one will be able to understand how it was possible that we knew of the existence of the gas chambers but failed to act.