[Viewpoint] A word of truth still outweighs the worldIn his polemic titled “The Mortal Danger: How Misconceptions About Russia Imperil America,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote of how his countrymen have suffered a kind of “biological degeneration” due to their poor diet, while also enduring political propaganda, ideological brainwashing, and religious and cultural clampdowns. The author, who died on Aug. 3 four years ago, claimed that for the Russian people, solace could only be sought in alcohol.
Such was the level of oppression under Stalin that the former Soviet Union resembled a giant concentration camp. After writing a letter criticizing the tyrant, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to death and spent considerable time in the country’s gulags, which inspired the writings that brought him great fame. Behind the Iron Curtain, this man of conscience fought alone against the madness of the prevailing ideology of the time by shining a light on the reality of everyday life. History remembers him as the voice of Russia’s strangled conscience.
His decade of suffering in concentration camps inspired a series of novels including “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” “The Gulag Archipelago” and “Cancer Ward.” His novels added a new dimension to Russian literature due to their high level of moral introspection that delved into the lives of ordinary folk. They were tragic, brilliant and also vivid historic depictions of the kind of harrowing experiences felt by many who ran afoul of the system.
After he was deported from the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn was invited to give a speech at Harvard University. In his famous 1978 address, he embarrassed intellectuals in the West by fiercely criticizing the corruption of liberalism and the degradation of individualism.
In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he returned to his homeland after two decades’ away. There, he warned of the dangers of a growing materialism based on the Russian people’s desire for economic prosperity and urged them not to trample important values, such as humanity and compassion.
Although he faced a new system and ideology, Solzhenitsyn’s spirit of resistance against inhumane and savage behavior remained undiluted. He longed to see Russia become a more philanthropic society based on principles of justice and peace.
Solzhenitsyn’s accounts, however, do not just form a tragic history of the former Soviet Union. North Korea is the official outsider in the 21st century, with 24 million people united to protect the reigning dynasty as it moves into its third generation. It is a modern-day dystopia where hundreds of thousands of people are incarcerated in political prisons and Asian gulags. Kim Jong-un is hailed as “The Great Leader” and human dignity is almost nowhere to be found.
The “biological degeneration” that people in the North are experiencing today cannot be compared to what the Russians were put through half a century ago. Recently, the North Korean military lowered the height standard for draftees to 142 centimeters (4 foot and 6 inches), which is the average height of a fourth-grade boy in South Korea. That is the reality and stark contrast between the two Koreas, which both celebrated the 67th anniversary of their emancipation from Japanese rule yesterday.
In the past, Russians ate whatever they could to survive. In North Korea, where food is even more scarce, many people escape reality with drugs, and young children scour garbage dumps for something to eat or, if they are especially lucky, sell on the black market. Although questions hang over the transparency of food aid distribution in the country, it is clearly urgently needed. Those who claim to defend North Koreans’ human rights while denying them food aid seem misguided.
After former Libya strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi was shot to death by rebel fighters last August, Pyongyang barred North Koreans residing in the Middle East from returning home. This was part of its ploy to head off a possible copycat version of the Jasmine Revolution, but a so-called people’s democracy that tries to stay in power by forcing the public to collectively stick its head in the sand is both absurd and doomed. Slogans of nationalism, self-reliance and unification are not enough to cover this up.
Or as Solzhenitsyn said after collecting the Nobel Prize in Literature, “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.” After reading reports that Kim Young-hwan was captured and tortured recently by Chinese authorities after fighting for democracy in the North, I was reminded of Solzhenitsyn’s famous quote. The propensity of liberals to defend the North is regrettable, as we should remain true to Solzhenitsyn’s sentiments and not attempt to bury the truth of the reality across our border.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a partner at Hwang Mok Park, PC and former head of the Seoul Central District Court.
By Lee Woo-keun