The Corner


Love and North Korea

Yeonmi Park and Jung Gwang-il (Oslo Freedom Forum)

President Trump had another rally in West Virginia last night (Wheeling). He made some shocking statements about North Korea — or statements that would be shocking but for the “new normal” that has set in. For instance, Trump said this about his relationship with Kim Jong-un: “We were going back and forth, and then we fell in love, okay? No, really. He wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters. We fell in love.”

Trump made me think of Yeonmi Park, a young woman I met and interviewed in 2014. A North Korean, she made an escape with her family in 2007 and is unfathomably brave. She told me something about love — love in the context of North Korea. First, let me provide a little background. Indeed, I will quote from my piece about her:

Like other North Koreans, Yeonmi was convinced that the Kims could even read her thoughts. The Kims were all-pervasive. When Yeonmi was four, her mother told her, “Don’t even whisper. The birds and the mice will hear you. The birds will hear you during the day, and the mice will hear you at night.” The mother was trying to protect her daughter “from the terror,” as Yeonmi says — from terrible consequences. A wrong word could get you and your family into fatal trouble.

To survive, Yeonmi and her sister ate dragonflies, frogs, tree bark, and grass. You could eat grass only before June, because, afterward, it was poisonous. When Yeonmi was nine, she and her classmates were made to witness public executions. I will quote again from my piece:

One of the victims was her best friend’s mother. She was shot, with the others. Her offense was to have lent a James Bond video to someone else. The regime could not let alien ideas take root and grow. Yeonmi stood next to her friend — the victim’s daughter — as the woman was killed.

Fleeing, Yeonmi faced rape and every other manner of hell. Her father died a terrible death, “like an animal,” she told me. She helped bury him in the mountains, at 3 in the morning. It was extremely cold. “I was afraid to cry” and be discovered.

All right, what about love? Well, I asked her when she first realized that she lived in an abnormal country — North Korea. That other people had different and better lives. It was when she was in her early teens.

She saw the movie Titanic, in a bootleg copy. This movie not only tells the story of the famous tragedy at sea. It invents a love story between a young man named Jack and a young woman named Rose. In the end, Jack sacrifices his life for Rose.

Yeonmi was stunned. In North Korea, there were no love stories. “There is no Romeo and Juliet,” as she says. The only “love” is for the Communist party and the Kims. There is nothing more honorable than to die for the Kims. Dying for another person — someone you genuinely love — is unthinkable. As she watched the movie, Yeonmi wondered whether the director and actors would be killed. The movie was a criminal act, in North Korean terms.

The act of watching the movie “transformed my thinking,” says Yeonmi. “It was mind-blowing. It gave me my first taste of freedom. I realized that there was something else out there, that not all the people in this world were living like us. It was a really important turning-point in how I saw the Kim regime.”

When I write about President Trump and “Chairman Kim,” as Kim now is, from the president’s mouth, many people say, “What’s the big deal? Lighten up. He’s just being diplomatic, you know. What, you want a nuclear war?” The more you know about North Korea, I think, the more you are repulsed by Trump’s statements.

I recall learning what Joseph Davies, our ambassador to Moscow, said about Josef Stalin: “He gives the impression of a strong mind which is composed and wise. His brown eye is exceedingly kindly and gentle. A child would like to sit in his lap, and a dog would sidle up to him.” For decades, conservatives and other anti-Communists have quoted this, with shudders.

Mona Charen wrote an entire book about apologists for, and enablers of, Communism: Useful Idiots. Bill Buckley said he had hoped such a book would be written but feared it would not be. And Mona did it.

Many of us recoiled when President Obama bowed, or appeared to bow, to foreign potentates (including our allies, such as the Saudi king). I remember being disgusted when, during a U.N. speech, Obama referred to Ali Khamenei, the head ayatollah in Iran, as “the Supreme Leader.” Indeed, my disgust occasioned an entire essay from me (here).

I had heard nothing yet. “He wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters. We fell in love.”

Let me relate a little bit more about life in North Korea — about reality there. Two years ago, I interviewed another North Korean defector, Jung Gwang-il (piece here). He was in the gulag, like so many of his countrymen.

In the winter, the prisoners were made to get wood from the mountain. Many were injured or killed, as the trees fell or the logs rolled down the mountain. Other prisoners would not pause to bury the dead. It would have taken too much energy in the frozen ground. They carried the bodies back to a shed next to a latrine. At night, when you went to the latrine, you could hear moaning from the shed — some weren’t dead yet. By the spring, they were all dead, of course. The bodies had formed a great gelatinous mass. And Jung and the others would have to break it apart, with shovels, and bury it.

When Trump made his remarks about Kim last night, he knew that people would criticize him: “They’ll say, ‘Donald Trump says they fell in love. How horrible. How horrible is that? So unpresidential.’” I don’t know about “unpresidential.” I don’t even know what that means anymore. But “horrible”? Yes, and immoral, and repugnant.

America means a lot to a lot of people around the world — more than most Americans suspect, I think. Millions of people — especially ordinary people, not elites — look to America to stand up for freedom and human rights and justice. I remember visiting the Lincoln Memorial with a friend of mine. He was born and raised in India. Grinning, marveling, he said, “He sits there as though daring anyone even to utter the word ‘discrimination.’”

It is possible to deal with monstrous, murderous dictators without slobbering over them, and without talking about falling in love with them. It is possible to deal with them without disheartening and repulsing people who have to live under dictatorship. They hear us, you know. They hear the American president.

I learned all this from conservatives, mainly. And we ought to ask ourselves, “What would we think, and say, if a Democratic president were talking and acting like this?” And why should it be any different now?

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