north-korea-prison-camps-us-prison-population-human-rightsI was nearly at the end of a presentation on the North Korean prison camp system, when the last person in the audience grasped the microphone to ask a question. His question was so unexpected that I was literally blindsided.

Up to that point, I’d already described the conditions inside North Korea’s prison camps as “odious” and “systematic,” which qualified them as a crime against humanity. I’d already talked about the nearly complete absence of civil society inside North Korea, which distinguishes the country from Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union during the Communist era. I’d already mentioned my own frustrations about strategies to address the country’s human rights violations and concluded by supporting both name-and-shame efforts and governmental engagement with Pyongyang as a precondition to improving the lives of all North Koreans, including (one day) those in the prison camps.

I’d already answered half a dozen questions. But this last question threw me for a loop.

“In your entire presentation,” the questioner said, “you did not once mention the U.S. prison system. You did not mention that the United States has the largest percentage of its population behind bars. You did not mention the terrible conditions inside U.S. prisons.”

I should have thanked the questioner for his question and simply noted that he was correct. The incarceration rate in the United States is indeed the highest in the world, and the conditions inside the U.S. prison system are sufficiently terrible to warrant several critical Amnesty International reports, including one on solitary confinement last year.

But I didn’t. Instead, I said that this was a question of apples and oranges. I said that the conditions inside the North Korean prison camps were fundamentally different from the conditions inside U.S. prisons, however awful the latter might be. The conditions inside North Korean camps are more akin to what you’d find in the Soviet-era gulags in Siberia: very little food, punishing labor conditions, high death rate. Moreover, many people are sent to these camps simply because they are related to someone accused of a crime. Some people, as we know from the recent book Escape from Camp 14, are even born in these camps and destined to die there.

I did not convince the person in the audience who asked the question. He was focused on an issue very dear to his heart: a systematic and appalling injustice in a country that prides itself on the rule of law. I tried to convey the horrors of the North Korean case, but we stood on either side of a chasm of mishearing.

It was a peculiar pathology of the Cold War that forced people not only to choose which side to support but also which side to criticize. One camp focused on the human rights abuses that took place in the countries of the Communist world; the other camp devoted their attentions to the human rights abuses in the countries of the capitalism world. The Cold War ended in Europe, though it lingers on in Asia. But this pathology of one-sided condemnation also continues to thrive, despite the best efforts of organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to address all human rights violations, east and west, north and south.

There is, of course, a natural tendency to specialize. Most of us adopt an issue – genocide in Sudan, war crimes in Guatemala, ethnic cleansing in Burma, Guantanamo detainees – and we try to raise awareness of the problem and fight for the limited space devoted to “foreign affairs” in the media. In order to capture more “market share,” we emphasize what makes “our issue” particularly heinous and worthier of attention than others.

This competition over what constitutes the most egregious human rights abuses is complicated by geopolitical considerations of the same type that plagued debates during the Cold War. I have sometimes encountered the “change of topic” response to the issue of North Korean human rights abuses. Yes, but what about U.S. sanctions against North Korea, someone will counter, which itself constitutes a human rights abuse? Criticism of North Korea’s human rights record, according to this perspective, is just another arrow in the quiver of regime change.

This “either-or” mentality is deeply frustrating. As someone who has criticized regime-change strategies toward North Korea, I strongly urge a “both-and” approach that levels criticism at both Washington and Pyongyang: yes, containment tactics are counterproductive and yes, human rights abuses inside North Korea are appalling. The same “both-and” approach applies to the original question: yes, the situation inside U.S. prisons is unacceptable and yes, the conditions inside North Korean prison camps constitute a crime against humanity. It’s not a multiple-choice test. There is no one right answer.

There is a fundamental inconvertibility to suffering. To the person who is suffering, it doesn’t alleviate the pain to know that it has been judged to be one-half or one-quarter the suffering of someone else. What applies to individuals can be said for groups as well. Who suffered more: Jews during the Holocaust or Africans during the era of slavery? The question is nonsensical to the families of those who suffered and died.

Of course, we must also not fall into the trap of viewing a country solely through its human rights record. The number of people imprisoned in North Korea’s camps is relatively small. The higher estimate of 200,000 still doesn’t encompass one percent of the population. A number of organizations are trying to improve the living standards of the roughly 25 million people who live in North Korea – either through humanitarian relief, development assistance, or economic investment. Should they be criticized in an “either-or” way for not working to close the prison camps? No, in the world of “both-and,” human rights organizations and groups working on economic engagement operate if not together then at least in an atmosphere of cordial respect.

Today, when everything is a competition – in the marketplace, in the sports arena, on American Idol – it is all too easy to fall into a game of “competitive suffering” that elevates the pain of some over the pain of others. But when it comes to suffering, we must resist facile comparisons. As we focus on a particularly appalling human rights problem within its own context, we must remember the old labor slogan that “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

John Feffer is an Open Society fellow studying Eastern Europe. He is on leave from his position as co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

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