The Corner

A ‘Psychotic State’

Today on the homepage, we begin a series on an interview I had with George W. Bush at his center in Dallas. He is an exceptional man, as you know, and an exceptional interviewee: candid, expansive, expressive.

Early in our talk, he mentioned a North Korean defector whom he has had as a guest at his center: Shin Dong-hyuk, who told his story in Escape from Camp 14. This led me to mention another defector and memoirist: Chol-hwan Kang, who wrote The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag. Bush saw him in the Oval Office twice, I think.

For a picture — a picture I like a lot — go here.

I wanted to say here on the Corner that I met Kang in 2010. This was at the Oslo Freedom Forum. I wrote about it here. I remember how I felt when I was shaking his hand, and talking to him through his interpreter. I felt that I was meeting an escapee from a dark, dark place. An emissary from hell. Someone from a distant and horrifying planet. I could scarcely believe I was meeting him. And I was grateful he was alive.

I don’t think I had ever met a North Korean before. Since then, I have met several, and interviewed two or three. But I believe Kang was the first.

Jeane Kirkpatrick called North Korea a “psychotic state,” something very rare in history, something with which we have little experience. I got to know North Korea even better — if an outsider can know it at all — when researching my book on the children of dictators. The ruling Kims are hard to beat for madness and tyranny.

Someday, surely, the grip will break, and North Koreans at large will be free to tell their stories. The world will be shocked (if it listens). But Kang and Shin are among the first. They are like the men and women who first got word out about what was happening in the Soviet Union.

“Rumors in Riga.” That was the phrase in the West (as Robert Conquest told me). People said that tales of horror in the Soviet Union were merely “rumors in Riga” (one of the westernmost places in the USSR). But they were, of course, true.

P.S. Bush told me that it was Henry Kissinger who recommended that he read The Aquariums of Pyongyang. Which surprised me.

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